[Bardor Tulku Rinpoche’s public talk on “How Difficulties Enhance Spiritual Practice” given at the Columbus Tibetan Buddhist Center, OH, in October 2010. Translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, transcribed by Ed Powers, edited by Basia Coulter. Copyright Bardor Tulku Rinpoche and Peter O’Hearn.]
The first thing we have to understand, when talking about bringing adversity to the spiritual path, is that if we engage in spiritual practice, we will be undergoing adversity.
Adversity can take many forms; it can be external, such as physical or environmental, or it can be internal and arise within our mind. As a great abbot of the Sakya tradition, Khenpo Kedrup, once said, “For you all, there are so many adversities and so few conducive circumstances.” What we have to understand, though, is that in spite of the fact that adversity is so conspicuously prevalent in our lives, none of the adversities we encounter are inherently existent. They arise as circumstances that we experience as adverse because of the attitude we take toward them in our minds. And therefore the adversities themselves are secondary to our nature.
It is important, however, to make a distinction in this regard between the situations of persons who bear different degrees of responsibility that affect others. If someone bears the responsibility for something like a dharma center, in which the decisions they make will affect the spiritual practice of many others, that is a whole different situation. But with regard to persons concerned only with their own development—with their own personal practice—fundamentally, what they need to do is maintain their faith and connection. They should especially remain free from sectarianism and ensure that their minds not be overpowered by kleshas.
One of the most important things for us as Buddhists is to understand the meaning of our taking refuge in the Three Jewels, and especially to understand the actual attributes of the Three Jewels in whom we take refuge. We can learn about these things from the many books, teachings given by eminent lamas, and so on. But the point is that if we understand the attributes or characteristics of the Three Jewels, then the whole process of relating to the teachings becomes very easy, I think.
In the context of taking refuge, the Buddha is defined as “supreme among those who walk upon two feet.” That means that the Buddha is supreme among all humans and devas, because he is the authentic teacher.
In the context of the vow of refuge, we define dharma as “supreme among all that is free of attachment.” This means that dharma itself is always free from attachment and all other kleshas.
What is dharma? Dharma consists of two things: tradition and realization. The dharma of tradition exists as written words found in books. Books and the words within them are inanimate. They are not sentient beings and therefore they do not, and cannot possibly, possess kleshas. So therefore the dharma of tradition is immaculate in the sense of being free from attachment.
Realization refers to all of the resultant states and levels of realization gained by practitioners of the shravakayana, pratyekabuddhayana, and mahayana through their practice of the Buddha’s respective teachings. So the realization dharma consists of the states of shravaka arhat, pratyekabuddha arhat, bodhisattva, and finally a buddha. In that state of realization and in the realization itself, the kleshas are eradicated, not increased, and one comes to possess the wisdom that knows the nature of things and the wisdom that knows the attributes of things. So the dharma of realization increases one’s merit and in no way increases or supports the kleshas. It is, therefore, accurate and true to say that dharma is supreme among all that is free of attachment and other kleshas.
In the same context, the sangha is defined as “supreme among assemblies.” In this world, there are a vast number of societies, groups, assemblies, and organizations. Some of these are held together by a common commitment among the members to try to do good; and some of them are held together by a shared commitment among the members to do bad. The Buddhist sangha is defined by the shared commitment among its members to do their best to try to emulate the Buddha. And so we regard the sangha as a source of refuge because it is the next best thing to the Buddha. But the members of the sangha are explicitly not buddhas. Therefore they have kleshas. If the members of the sangha did not have kleshas, they would not need to practice dharma and would not be members of the sangha. A sick person will take medicine; someone who is completely free from illness is not going to take medicine because they do not need it.
The problem we experience very much nowadays is that we are unable to tell the difference between a spiritual tradition and those who practice it. When we encounter upheaval, adversity, disputation, or controversy in a religious or spiritual tradition, we immediately denigrate the tradition itself. We say, “Well, this tradition is simply no good.” But this comes from our misapprehension of the behavior of some of the members of the tradition as something inherent in the tradition itself. This is a problematic misapprehension for us because it causes us to lose respect for genuine spiritual traditions. And, for example, if we are Buddhist practitioners and we lose respect for our own tradition, it harms us tremendously because we leave the path. Without pursuing the path, we find ourselves unable to tame our minds and our kleshas.
Even when there are problems, we need to recognize that dharma itself is pure, but the humans who practice it are human beings who should be expected to be imperfect. The nirmanakayas who intentionally take birth among us in order to teach us and guide us to liberation—however they may appear—are essentially free from affliction. But practitioners, all of us, have all five kleshas functioning fully. The amount of kleshas that we have and the degree we fall prey to them is based on our attitudes, our intentions, and our previous karma. Whenever we act out our kleshas, this is not coming from dharma, this is coming from us as people.
In order to survive upheaval or adversity, we need to learn to distinguish between the dharma and the sangha, and to recognize that after all we are practicing dharma because we all have kleshas. No matter how much we may object to the errors or misdeeds of another, we have to remember that all beings without exception have countless times been our parents because we have all been born countless times throughout beginningless time. If we can take that attitude of empathetic bodhichitta and abstain from the demonization of others, then even when adversity arises, we will not lose our accumulation of merit and our accumulation of wisdom in an outburst of anger. We will know how to tame our minds even in the midst of difficulties, controversy, and adversity. We will learn how to recognize our own kleshas and tame them. We will continue to study and practice. And especially, we will not fall into the error of rejection of dharma and we will not harm others.
It is said that there is nothing good about wrongdoing but in fact, there is one good thing about wrongdoing—it can be purified. If a person who committed wrongdoing admits to it wholeheartedly, then regardless of what the wrongdoing consisted of, it will be purified.
Dharma, because it is inanimate, is said to be flawless and immaculate. But in a sense we could say that dharma has one flaw. There is one problem with the dharma. Precisely because it is inanimate, dharma will not tell you when you are distorting it. We have a saying about this, “Quotations of the Buddha’s words are like animal skins, they can be stretched quite a bit.” And this is why the Buddha warned us by saying, “Test those words attributed to me down to a single stanza with the skepticism that you would treat something being sold to you as the purest gold. Do not accept it until you have proven its purity.” This means that we each need to employ our own insight and our own common sense in assessing any teaching—written or oral—to see it is really true to the dharma. We have to ask if it is really helpful to beings or not. And if we can use our intelligence in that way, then we will be certain that our practice will be unmistaken and of benefit to ourselves and others.
Those who teach dharma may possess both virtues and flaws. In all cases, we need to be able to tell the difference, so that we can emulate our teacher’s virtues and avoid our teacher’s flaws. Only in that way will we be able actually grow spiritually.
His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa and His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa, and in fact any buddha or bodhisattva, has only one aim, and that is to help beings. As it is said, “the only thing pleasing to buddhas is the happiness of beings.” Any buddha, any bodhisattva, any emanation of any buddha or bodhisattva, will have that aim alone. All they want to do is free beings from suffering and bring beings to a state of happiness. If we have that understanding and if based on that understanding we, as practitioners and in working with our teachers, can act according to dharma, things will go very well. So it is my hope that all of us will do this. I pray that all of us do this and I ask that all of you do this.
Still, no matter how hard we try, there will be problems. Something is always going to come up. Sometimes things come up within our minds. Sometimes things come up externally. When problems arise, we need to deal with them in such a way that we can actually bring them to the path, which means to use the unavoidable situation of the problem to go further on the path rather than abandon it or backtrack.
We are Buddhists and especially we are practitioners of the mahayana. That means that principally what we are trying to do is train our minds in both aspiration and implementation bodhichitta. We are trying to practice the six paramitas (or six perfections). But the six perfections can only be practiced when there are problems of one kind or another. We can use the third perfection—patience—as an example. The quality of patience is the ability not to become angry and not to act out of anger when something or someone is making us angry. When we are subject to no stimulus that evokes anger, when nobody is doing anything that bothers us, when nothing is going wrong; there is simply no way for us to practice patience. We cannot practice patience unless there is a situation that tests our patience. The situation may be internal—it may be something that has arisen within our mind that is tormenting us. It may be a disagreement within our family, within a mundane group or association, within a sangha. But whatever it is, by being patient with it we have a fantastic opportunity to increase our own virtue and obviously to facilitate others’ increase of it.
While we can never expect others not to get angry at us, while we can never expect there to be an absence of stimuli evoking anger, we have to remember that a fight takes two. No cymbal can make sound unless it is collided with another cymbal. No drum will make a sound unless a drumstick strikes it. So there will always be disagreements among us and we will always experience disappointments with the behavior of others. But if we can commit ourselves to open-minded patience, we will not lose our way along the path. And we will be able to cooperate with others and be of real use to them. Even in order to succeed in this world in the most mundane way, we depend upon doing as much good as we can, and avoiding as much wrongdoing as we can.
To use myself as an example, at the command of His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, I served the monastery of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra for 31 years. During that time, when Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche had founded the Karme Ling Retreat Center and was busy teaching and directing the retreat, for a period of almost 20 years I had the principal responsibility of teaching and supervising the ongoing functions of the centers. Therefore, I remain attached to the outcome in these centers and I pray that in your centers you work together in harmony; and that the centers grow, prosper, and flourish. Never think that I want these centers to go down, be ruined, or suffer in any way. Work together and remember that even though there will always be problems, there will always be miscommunications, ups and downs, disagreements of all kinds, that your centers were founded by the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa and they will therefore, without doubt, be the primary venue for the activity in this country of the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa. Furthermore, the teachings of the Karmapas will last for as long as the teachings of the thousand buddhas of this kalpa continue to exist. So for all these reasons, the survival of these centers is of far greater significance to me than how you view or treat me. I always pray for all of you and for the centers, and I will always keep you all in my mind.