The question is sometimes asked, why is it important to preserve the ritual and tradition of Buddhism? Buddhism, in this case the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, originated in an Asian culture that is very foreign to Western ways. So why is it important to preserve the traditions and rituals that developed in that culture? What is their significance?
That is a very important question to answer, but it is not so easy to answer. For one thing, Buddhism adapted to whatever culture it came to. One only has to compare the look of Buddhism practiced in different Asian countries, such as Tibet, Japan, Thailand or Sri Lanka, to see that Buddhism has taken many forms since the Dharma was originally taught by Lord Buddha some 2,500 years ago. Now that Buddhism has come to the West in its many different forms, surely its practice will change and adapt to Western needs and values. Indeed, such changes have already begun. But it is important to understand that one must not throw out the baby with the bath water, so to speak.
The rituals and traditions of the Nyingma School are fundamental to the practice of Buddhism in this lineage. The same is true of other Buddhist lineages. There are some things that cannot be changed without fundamentally altering the teachings and thus destroying the validity of the lineage. They might be termed the core values of the lineage. So while the outward forms may appear different in some cases, as long as the core values are maintained, the heart of the lineage remains pure and unchanged. This is vital to the survival of Buddhism in the West because without pure lineage there is no path and no attainment.
It is through ritual that we are able to stimulate the latent seed of enlightenment in our mindstream. It is through tradition that we are able to keep the lineage pure and uncorrupted. It should be remembered that these rituals and traditions come directly from the mind of enlightenment for the benefit of sentient beings. Many of the rituals and traditions of the Nyingma school that are now being practiced in the West are from termas which were hidden by Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal specifically for the times in which we now live. They are not relics of some dusty, half-forgotten tradition half a world away.
The Buddha laid out the basics of proper conduct in the Eightfold Path. These are also important to understand and to observe when one enters the path. They form the basis for moral conduct that is vital to staying on the path and to avoiding the creation of negative karma that would create obstacles on the path. The basic moral dictum of Buddhism is to do no harm. This is the foundation of the Eightfold Path and a good test of whether one’s behavior is in accord with it. Without moral integrity, there is no merit, and without merit, there is no path, and this morality must extend to all areas of one’s life.
There are some in the West who question the core values of Buddhism and who fail to practice moral integrity in their lives but who still claim to be Buddhists. This is like the infamous flying pig. Of course, no Buddhist practitioner is perfect in his or her morality. We are sentient beings and thus imperfect. The difference is in realizing when one has made an error and confessing it rather than delighting in one’s errors and being prideful of them.
One of the greatest tests of morality on the path in the West is working in the business world, where Buddhist principles of morality and behavior are rarely observed nor rewarded. It is important for the practitioner to find work in a business that does not violate the basic Buddhist precepts, such as not killing and not lying, and it is important to treat both coworkers and customers with integrity and honesty. A Buddhist physician who is more interested in the bottom line than the welfare of his patients is a dysfunctional Buddhist as he is putting greed over the welfare of others. A Buddhist journalist who fails to follow the practices of journalistic integrity is a dysfunctional Buddhist as he is guilty, essentially, of lying. A Buddhist who works for an arms dealer is a dysfunctional Buddhist as his business contributes to the killing of humans. Such situations are to be avoided.
Adapting Buddhism to the West will be a lengthy process that will take lifetimes. It is essential to guard against those who place more value in their own limited vision and moral poisons than in the tried and true teachings of enlightened masters. To paraphrase an old saying, eternal vigilance is the price of liberation!
There is a school of thought amongst a few Western Buddhists who think that devotion to the teacher should be replaced by some sort of democratic institution in which the role of the teacher is diminished to be replaced by the “collective wisdom of the sangha.” Much of this stems from an interview with Dungse Thinley Norbu published in Tricycle in 1996. Unfortunately, the interview was heavily edited and distorted Thinley Norbu Rinpoche’s intent, leaving a great deal of confusion and misinformation in the minds of many students who read the interview as it seems as though Rinpoche is dismissing Western ideas completely. The point of what Rinpoche actually said is that while democracy and Western philosophical and political legacies have value in a samsaric, ordinary sense, they should never be confused with the essence of the Dharma, nor can they replace the wisdom mind of the teacher who holds both lineage and realization. As he puts it, collecting the opinions of confused beings (in other words, all those who have not attained enlightenment) results in a larger heap of confusion. This is not a recipe for success on the path. Reliance upon a pure teacher who teaches pure Dharma has been proven again and again to result in realization for the student. Simply because Buddhism is now being practiced in the West does not mean that the essence of the Dharma should be forgotten. As Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo puts it, why would a practitioner try to cross the ocean of samsara with a captain who has never made the trip even ONCE?
While Buddhism will certainly change in the West as it has always changed whenever it was introduced into a new country, a new culture, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. The form or forms Buddhism adopts in its new homes in the West will be external only; the essence must remain the same as it has always been or it will become something else, not a path to enlightenment. We must never forget that these beings who are our teachers are bodhisattvas who emanate impartially for the benefit of sentient beings. They have no other agenda than that.
The problem with devotion in our culture is basically one of ego attachment. We feel that turning over control to another will destroy us, so our reaction comes from fear for self. Of course, Buddhism is all about cutting through ego attachment to achieve liberation, but the habit of ego-clinging is a deeply rooted one, especially in the West where self is spelled with a capital S. Actually the objective of devotion is just that, to move us away from the position of self-attachment, which is ultimately self-destructive because it results in the dualistic mind of samsara. Devotion is an essential part of the Vajrayana path, and devotion does not equal democracy. It is more like the Alcoholics Anonymous approach in which the alcoholic turns over his power to his higher power and to his sponsor, who acts as his or her guide to sobriety. The alcoholic discovers that he/she cannot trust his own mind. This realization is based on a long history of disastrous results when the alcoholic depends on his/her own mind to try to attain sobriety and control over his/her own life. So he/she learns to follow the advice of one who has already made the journey to sobriety through the 12 Step Path. The same basic approach is followed when practicing Guru Yoga. One admits that one has never been able to free oneself from the Wheel of Death and Rebirth on one’s own and therefore turns over one’s power to the lama who has already made the journey. This is where the power of the Vajrayana path comes from, not the collective knowledge of samsaric beings, which is worse than useless on the path.
We must always be vigilant in protecting the essence of the Dharma from our own deluded minds.
Karma is one of the principle teachings of the Buddha, but it is also one of the most misunderstood, particularly here in the West. What exactly is meant by karma, and why is it important to understand how it works?
Simply put, karma is the law of cause and effect. Dropping a ball and having it bounce back up is a very simple example of karma. But the law of karma extends into all of our physical and mental activities. The Buddha taught that what binds us in samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth and suffering, are the defilements or poisons, which can be summarized as hatred, greed and ignorance. Ignorance specifically means ignorance of the law of karma, the fact that our actions have consequences that are exacting. The conditions of our present life are due to the karma we have created in our past lives and in this life. If one is wealthy, it is due to the generosity shown in past lives. If one is poor, it is due to a lack of generosity in past lives.
Please note that the teaching of karma is not judgmental. This is not a good and evil thing, but rather an explanation of why things happen. We create the conditions of our own life. It is never a case of somebody doing something to us, despite external appearances. The Buddha taught that nothing happens without a cause. If we suffer, it is because of we created the causes for suffering. Since all sentient beings suffer as a result of the causes they themselves have created, there can be no judgment of others as we are all in the same boat.
Karma also does not equal fate or predestination. Karma means simply “action”. Thus karma is dynamic. It is in a state of constant flux. Action here means voluntary, intentional, deliberate action, not unconscious or involuntary action. It is action that we consciously take and thus must bear the consequences of.
Newton stated that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, any action we take will produce a karmic effect that produces, sooner or later, a reaction. The reaction may be experienced as good, such as being born into wealth, or it may be experienced as bad, such as being born into poverty, but in reality it is simply a reaction to an action, cause and effect. As the Buddha taught, if we plant an apple seed, we get an apple tree. We don’t get an orange tree. The reaction always matches the original action.
For example, if one were to kill another human being, the karmic effect of that would be that that person would be killed him- or herself. But that effect may not be experienced for lifetimes as the effect will only ripen when the appropriate scenario presents itself. That is, the karmic effect will only manifest in a way and at a time that matches the original cause. The problem with this is that as sentient beings we cannot recall our past lives, so if something like that happens to us, seemingly out of the blue, we have no idea what the original cause is. We cannot see the connection between the cause and the effect. Therefore we have no way of understanding karma unless we hear the teachings of the Buddha who realized how karma works as he meditated under the Bo Tree on the night of his enlightenment. It is because of his enlightenment and subsequent teaching that we can learn how karma works and how to create the conditions that we wish to have in our lives. We gain happiness when we engage in intelligent or skillful means, and we suffer when we engage in unintelligent or unskillful means. It really is that simple.
What then are the unwholesome actions we wish to avoid doing so that we can experience happiness rather than suffering? There are said to be ten unwholesome acts in general, three of the body, four of speech, and three of the mind. The three of the body are killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. The four of the speech are lying, slander, harsh speech, and malicious gossip. The three of the mind are greed, anger, and delusion. Of course, these ten unwholesome actions manifest in numerous ways, but they generally fall into these ten categories.
The unwholesome actions have suffering as their fruit. They often lead to rebirth in the lower realms, the hell, hungry ghost, and animal realms, where suffering is intense and overwhelming. One cannot achieve enlightenment in the face of the suffering of the lower realms.
Wholesome actions can take two forms. One form is simply not performing unwholesome actions. While not creating negative karma, this approach also does not accumulate much positive karma either. It is more productive to engage in positive actions as opposed to negative ones, such as generosity, virtuous conduct, meditation, reverence, helping others, dedicating merit to others, rejoicing in the merit of others rather than feeling jealousy, hearing the Dharma, and teaching the Dharma. Such actions produce merit, which results in happiness. All of these actions produce tangible benefits. For example, hearing the Dharma results in wisdom, generosity results in wealth, and so forth.
The intent behind a particular action, whether wholesome or unwholesome, affects the weight of the karma accrued as a result. If the intent of an action is to cause harm to another, harm is caused to another, and there is no remorse, the action will carry the heaviest weight. If all of these conditions are not present, then the weight will be less, though there will still be an effect. Thus karma is not a matter of strict black and white, that if you do such-and-such an action, such-and-such a result will ensue. It is never that simple. And it should also be mentioned that not every action produces karma. Sleeping, walking, breathing, etc., have no moral consequence as there is no motivation associated with them that would produce karma.
The teaching of karma should not be thought of as a teaching on how we are punished for evil deeds. Rather it is more productive to think of the teaching of karma as the method by which we can become masters of our own lives, how we can create happiness time and time again and ultimately create the conditions that will result in our enlightenment and the enlightenment of all sentient beings. Buddha in the palm of our hand.
According to the teachings on the bardos in Tibetan Buddhism, when we die we enter what is known as the bardo of the intermediate state. This is the period between the end of one life and the beginning of the next. The Buddha taught that sentient beings are continually revolving endlessly on the Wheel of Death and Rebirth, and this is the teaching that explains how that actually happens. Just to dispel any misperception that this is an invention of Vajrayana Buddhism, the first bardo teachings appeared soon after the Buddha’s death in various Theravadan schools, so it has a long history.
What is a bardo exactly? Bardo simply means “becoming”. In other words, a transitional state. In fact, we are always in one bardo or the other. There are traditionally four types of bardos that we as sentient beings experience, the bardo of life, the bardo of dying, the bardo of the intermediate state or death, and the bardo of entering a new life. Two other states are often included in the list of bardos, the bardo of meditation and the bardo of the dream state. Basically these are six different states of mind.
When a person dies, they go through a series of distinct phases of outer and inner signs preceding actual death. This is when the elements that came together in life dissolve and move apart. Thus when the white bindu (the male element) separates, the person experiences the brilliant white light that people who undergo near death experiences (NDEs) describe when they are revived. When the red bindu (female element) rises from the navel area up the central channel, the person experiences red light. Finally the person experiences what is perceived as utter blackness but is actually a direct experience of the clear light of dharmadhatu, the primordial wisdom state. It is at this point that most beings pass out and remain unconscious for a time, thus missing a golden opportunity at instantaneous enlightenment.
It is when the inner breath stops that one enters the bardo of the intermediate state in which one experiences visions that are perceived according to the karma of one’s mindstream created in past lives, including the one just ended. This can therefore either be a very peaceful experience or a terrifying one. One sees visions of the peaceful and wrathful deities, and to the practitioner who has visualized these deities in his or her life, they are not threatening. But to the person who has never had the benefit of an introduction to these deities, they may appear as terrifying demons and devils.
The experience of the bardo of the intermediate state, as described in great detail in the famous book, The Bardo Thodol, sometimes erroneously referred to as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is a time when having a connection to a teacher who can guide one through this time, which is fraught with danger and the imminent threat of rebirth in the lower realms, is invaluable. We sentient beings, even those who have practiced, are usually simply overwhelmed by the experience and can easily be led astray on the journey to the next life. A teacher trained in the bardo teachings and experienced in the practice of Phowa, the transference of consciousness at the moment of death, however, has the ability to guide the person through this experience and achieve the auspicious result of a precious human rebirth, meaning a human rebirth in which one is able to practice without obstacles and has the potential to achieve liberation in one life. For the practitioner who has practiced Phowa extensively, it is possible, with the assistance of the teacher, to attain instantaneous enlightenment at the moment he or she encounters the clear light state. This is the aspiration of all those who desire enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Without the assistance of a guide, however, sentient beings are blown by the winds of karma to their next life with no possibility of altering the outcome. This is what keeps beings trapped on the Wheel for lifetime after lifetime, experiencing the suffering that is the result of their own actions. Therefore the importance of having a pure guide and teacher in the present life cannot be underestimated. Simply living blindly, following our desires, is a sure way to spend countless lifetimes lost in the six realms of existence. This is the true value of the pure teacher.
There are those who suggest that all sentient beings are already enlightened and that they do not need such silliness as practicing and a teacher. Anyone who says this simply does not know what they are talking about and are trying to lure people away from the truth. Is the suffering experienced by sentient beings, all sentient beings, an enlightened state? Are sentient beings able to experience lasting happiness on their own? The answer to both questions is a resounding “No!” Sentient beings are unable to get off the Wheel on their own. Having a qualified teacher is the fastest and best way to accomplish this.
One of our readers who wishes to remain anonymous recently shared a story with us that seems appropriate here. It is about a lama who was riding in a car with a man who falsely claimed he was a tulku. They came upon an elk that had apparently fallen on the road they were on and was still moving slightly. They stopped, and the lama began to do Phowa for the creature. However, the false tulku stepped up to the elk and kicked it in its back to show that it was indeed dead. Then he played a tape of another lama making prayers. The lama was dumbfounded. Anyone who knows even the slightest thing about the practice of Phowa knows that one never touches the dead being anywhere except for tugging on the hair on its head to direct its attention upward so that its consciousness can exit the body upwards and go directly to Amitabha’s Pure Realm. Kicking it is just about the worst thing anyone can do. After this performance of sheer ignorance, the false tulku pulled the lama back into the car and drove off. Fortunately for the elk, as soon as she got home, the real lama performed Phowa for it.
This story illustrates how important it is to find an authentic lama in whom one can entrust one’s life and death. Trusting a false lama like this one would clearly have no good result, only disaster. Choose carefully, your future literally depends on it! Accept no substitutes!
As we have pointed out before, there is a movement afoot amongst certain Western Buddhists who study in the Tibetan tradition to do away with the tulku system of reincarnated lamas, those highly realized teachers who take birth again and again for the benefit of sentient beings. They claim this system is a relic of old Tibet that has no relevance in the West and opens the door to abuse. Is this a valid statement? Do tulkus no longer matter or have relevance?
Let us examine the case of one Western tulku who is no stranger to controversy and who has received more than her share of abuse from the doubters. We are speaking, of course, of Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, the first Western woman recognized as a tulku, the reincarnation of Genyenma Ahkön Lhamo, a Tibetan saint who, along with her brother, Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab, founded the Palyul lineage of Nyingma over 300 years ago. This was a difficult pill to swallow for some people. First of all, Jetsunma is a woman, a Western woman, with no formal training in Buddhism. She didn’t look like what some people thought a lama should look like, nor did she always behave like they thought a lama should behave. She could be earthy and blunt, which some people, especially men, found threatening. She taught directly from her mindstream, which upset those who think that the only way to gain knowledge is through formal education and who don’t really believe in the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth.
But what do other Tibetan lamas think? Jetsunma was recognized by none other than His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, the head of the Palyul lineage at the time and later the head of the entire Nyingma school. She was also recognized by His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, then head of the Nyingma, and the recognition was also confirmed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. These lamas, widely respected by all practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, expressed complete confidence in Jetsunma and her ability to teach without receiving any formal training in this life. They recognized that she had incorporated the Dharma into her mindstream in previous lives to such a degree that it made up the very fabric of her mindstream and would survive even death. They knew what is beyond the ken of ordinary sentient beings because they themselves have attained enlightenment. What it boils down to is you either believe that the teachings of Lord Buddha can produce something we call enlightenment or you don’t. That is the root of it. If you do accept the teachings of Lord Buddha as true, then there can be no doubt in your mind as to the authenticity of a tulku like Jetsunma or anyone else who carries the title and who has been recognized by an authentic lineage holder.
Jetsunma has invited many Tibetan lamas to come to her center, Kunzang Palyul Chöling (KPC), and teach. Many of these lamas are featured in a new video we found on You Tube called Got Devotion? We have embedded the video here for your enjoyment.
Featured in the video are His Holiness Penor Rinpoche and the Venerable Gyaltrul Rinpoche (who was Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab in a past life, Jetsunma’s brother). They both are Jetsunma’s root teachers in this life and have always supported her activities fully. Gyaltrul Rinpoche in particular guided Jetsunma as she adjusted to life as a recognized tulku after growing up as an American woman. He visited KPC many times, including coming to Sedona in 2000, 2002, and 2005. In 2002 he gave an extensive teaching on Peaceful Calm Abiding, a teaching which his translator and close student Sangye Khandro described as the most comprehensive teaching she had ever heard him give.
Other well-known and well respected lamas who have visited over the years are also shown, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Mugsang Kuchen Rinpoche (one of the three Heart Sons of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche), His Holiness Jigmey Phuntsok (a major tertön, or treasure revealer, who visited on his only trip to the West during his lifetime), Tulku Rigdzin Pema (a master stupa builder who guided the construction of the Migyur Dorje Stupa at KPC), Dzongnang Tulku (a classmate of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche), Tulku Tubsang (another classmate of His Holiness and current abbot of Palyul Monastery in Tibet/China), His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche (throneholder of the Drikung Kagyu lineage), His Holiness Kusum Lingpa Rinpoche (another tertön who revealed a terma about Jetsunma the moment he set foot in the temple), Ngakpa Yeshe Dorje (the “Dalai Lama’s weatherman”), Dhungse Thinley Norbu (son of His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche and an outstanding lama in his own right), and His Holiness Ngawang Tenzin (the Dorje Loppön of all Drukpa Kagyu monasteries in Bhutan). And this is just a sampling of the lamas who have visited KPC to teach over the years.
These lamas came to KPC not out of a sense of duty, nor a desire to get rich from speaker fees. They came because they wished to support Jetsunma in her activity in bringing Dharma to the West. They had no problem with the fact that she is a woman or that her teaching methods are at times nontraditional. They understood that the activity of the dakini (female enlightened being) is nontraditional by nature and that Jetsunma was engaged in such activity. They also understood that the Dharma cannot be properly established in a new country without the activity of the dakini. And they further understood that Jetsunma’s activity was always dedicated to the liberation and salvation of sentient beings, not to personal agendas or the desire to bilk her students, as is true of some who claim to be tulkus but who lack any credibility or lineage.
It is true that in Tibet the tulku system was at times abused for political or personal gain. It is also true that there have been those in the West who have also tried to abuse the tulku system for the same reasons. That is why the Buddha taught that each student should examine their teacher carefully so that authentic confidence and devotion can arise in their minds. It doesn’t matter who a tulku is, what kinds of honors they have accrued, who they know, how famous they are, or any ordinary things like that; what is important is that their teacher leads them to enlightenment, the end of suffering. With a teacher such as Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, her students will attest that she is that kind of lama. This is the true meaning of Guru Yoga.
Never one to leave well enough alone, Bill Cassidy has now entered the fray in yet another “controversy” (his words). This time he is taking on the Karmapa, or rather the Karmapas as there have been two separate recognitions of the 17th Karmapa, one, Thaye Dorje, by the Sharmapa, the Karmapa’s regent, and the other, Urgyen Trinley, by Tai Situ Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama, and just about everybody else. Specifically Cassidy brought up an unpleasant dispute involving a well-known Hong Kong singer and actress, Anita Mui, who died in 2003 at age 40 and bequeathed her estate, worth about $13 million, to the New Horizon Buddhist Association, an organization in Thaye Dorje’s camp. The will was contested by Anita Mui’s mother and was only just resolved in favor of the will, leaving her mother only a relatively small monthly stipend. While this may seem like a relatively none newsworthy event, particularly for anyone living outside of Hong Kong, Cassidy plays it up as if he were the National Enquirer. He even brags about it.
It is not necessary to go into the details of the two Karmapa controversy here. Much has been written about it, and while it was initially a hot controversy, it is very much yesterday’s news nowadays. Basically both camps have agreed to disagree, and while some hard feelings no doubt remain, nearly everyone defers to Urgyen Trinley as the authentic Karmapa. This is an issue that concerns the Kagyu lineage and should remain so. It should not become fodder for Cassidy’s continuing attacks on Buddhism in general, nor should the legal battle over Anita Mui’s will be tied in any way to the two Karmapa controversy. They are two very separate issues, and the issue of the will really is not a Buddhist issue at all. Attempting to tie them together is, at the very least, repugnant.
But that’s what Mr. Cassidy is all about, injecting doubt into students’ minds, trying to stir up discontent and schism where there is none, judging pure teachers when he himself is nothing but a con man and convicted felon. So how does that work, Bill? How do you get off judging anybody? It would be ludicrous if it wasn’t so pathetic. Can he possibly not realize the immense damage he is causing to himself?
It is particularly ironic that Cassidy would carp about a lineage controversy when he himself, who claims to be a tulku, of all things, has no lineage at all. All he has is a bag of hot air.
For some time now, one of Bill Cassidy’s attack sock puppets on Twitter has been threatening their favorite target, Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, Spiritual Director of Kunzang Palyul Chöling, with magical attacks. What is specifically referred to is the statement “owl and raven feathers separate”. This appeared to refer to some sort of tantric magical invocation to cause harm to the “enemy”. Recently this has been confirmed.
“Owl and raven feathers separate” refers to a specific tantric magical invocation to “separate” (i.e., remove) the defenses of the enemy so that the enemy is then left defenseless against attack. This probably stems from the ancient belief in many aboriginal cultures that owls and ravens represent the two poles of “good” and “evil”, based on white owl feathers and black raven feathers seen as symbols of polar opposites. Owl and raven feathers are also symbols of various protector deities in Vajrayana Buddhism. By performing a separation mudra while holding an owl feather and a raven feather, the defenses protecting the enemy could be separated.
While the idea of magical attack is widely discounted in these so-called modern times, there are many stories attesting to the power of tantric magic practitioners in Tibet. In the hands of a true master, such attacks, usually in the form of Vajrakilaya, the “Vajra nail”, could be devastating and sometimes fatal. Of course, the operative phrase here is “true master”, which Bill Cassidy patently is not. Let us pray that his attacks remain impotent.