Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey & essential teachings
Let me introduce to you to a great teacher, his life, some of his teachings and his parinirvana. May you learn and absorb from this great example of a learned Buddhist monk who arose from the wisdom and learnings of Tsongkapa’s peerless tradition.
(Disclaimer: I do not own any of the photos or information. I am sharing them here to express my great admiration for the eminent scholar and master Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and wish to bring more awareness of his illustrious life, and his writings and commentaries. I am not profiting from its use.)
A Short Biography of The Venerable Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
The Most Venerable Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey was born on the 13th of the fifth Tibetan month in the year of the Iron-Bird (1921) in the town of Yätsak (or Ya Chak) in the Trehor district of Tibet’s eastern province Kham. He was soon enrolled in the large local Dhargyey Monastery of the Gelug tradition, where he took pre-novice ordination vows. Although he was enrolled there he studied mainly in the village Sakya monastery, Lona Gonpa where he received instruction in reading, writing, grammar etc, and learned numerous texts and practices by heart. His teachers there included two of his uncles, as well as Kushu Gonpä Rinpoche, who was a master of all the five major fields of learning.
At the age of eighteen Gen Rinpoche left his home country to further his spiritual education at Sera Monastery, the great monastic university in Lhasa. There he underwent extensive training in all the five divisions of Buddhist philosophical study: Logic, Perfection of Wisdom, the Middle View, Metaphysics, and Ethical Discipline. This was interspersed with periods of intensive retreat at some of the many hermitages near Sera. By the time he was nineteen he had already mastered his studies sufficiently to become a scriptural teacher, and he began to have many students of his own. At the age of 21, he took full ordination vows of a Bhikshu from the widely renowned Purchog Jamgön Rinpoche. He also received numerous teachings, initiations and commentaries from the great Lamas of that time such as Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang (His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Tutor), Bakri Dorje Chang, Lhatsün Dorje Chang, Gönsar Dorje Chang and others. His monastic teachers were the great scholar- practitioners Gen Sherab Wangchuk, Gen Chöntse, and the now Gyume Kensur Ugyän Tseten.
He studied in Sera in Tibet for twenty years until, in 1959, Chinese oppression forced him to leave Tibet. Two years earlier he had been appointed tutor to two high incarnate lamas, Lhagön Rinpoche and Thupten Rinpoche. The three escaped from Chinese occupied Tibet together taking a long and dangerous journey of nine months under Chinese gunfire and snowstorms until they reached the Mustang region of Nepal. From Mustang it was a comparatively easy journey to India, where they joined His Holiness the Dalai Lama and some of Gen Rinpoche’s other teachers.
In India, after a brief pilgrimage to the sacred Buddhist sites, he took up his studies once again, and for several continued tutoring the tulkus (incarnate lamas). In the mid 1960s, he was chosen along with fifty-five other scholars to attend an Acarya course at Mussourie (north of Delhi). During his year in Mussourie, he and the other scholars wrote textbooks for the Tibetan refugee schools being established in India at that time. He then returned to Dalhousie where, over various periods, he continued to teach another seven incarnate lamas. He also finished his Geshe studies and, in oral examinations held at the Buxador refugee camp in Assam in eastern India (the seat of Sera monastery at that time) he gained the highest grade (First Class) Lharampa Geshe.
In 1971 he was asked by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to start a teaching program for westerners at the newly constructed Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, northern India. Two of his incarnate lama disciples, Sharpa Rinpoche and Kamlung Rinpoche, acted as translators. He stayed there, teaching very extensively to thousands of Westerners, until 1984. During this time he himself received extensive and often exclusive teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and from both of the tutors, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and Kyabje Ling Rinpoche.
In 1982 he travelled to the West for the first time to take up a one-semester visiting professorship for at the University of Washington in Seattle. This was followed by a year-long extensive tour of Buddhist teaching centres all over North America, Europe and Australasia.
He spent six weeks in New Zealand during this tour, and at the end of the visit he was requested to establish a Buddhist centre here. In 1985 His Holiness advised Gen Rinpoche to come to New Zealand, initially for one and a half years, to establish a centre. After a six month tour of Australia, he arrived in Dunedin in mid 1985. Due to the success of the Buddhist centre he remained here, occasionally travelling to other parts of New Zealand and to Australia on teaching tours.
Yatsak, in Eastern Tibet Gen Rinpoche was a wonderful teacher who loved to teach the great treatises, as well as experiential teachings which distilled their essence. He gave his last formal teaching in February 1995 in Dunedin. Gen Rinpoche entered into the death process on the 11th August 1995 (the 16th of the 6th Tibetan month) remaining in meditation for of three days.
His body was cremated with full traditional Tibetan funerary rites at Portobello, near Dunedin on 17th August (22nd of the 6th Tibetan month). Kushu Lhagön Rinpoche, one of Gen Rinpoche’s tulku disciples, presided over the Great Offering to His Holy Body Ceremony at a specially built cremation stupa.
His passing away is an immeasurable loss to his disciples and indeed to all living beings.
We offer fervent prayers that we may meet and be taken care of by him in all our lives. There is now new information about his recognized reincarnation, or Yangsi Rinpoche.
The Fifty Verses of Guru Devotion
By Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey (Last Updated Sep 10, 2008)
From the Introduction of Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s short commentary on the Fifty Verses:
The Fifty Verses of Guru Devotion [Skt: Gurupancashika; Tib: Lama Nga-chu-pa] was written in about the first century B.C. by Ashvagosha. This Indian poet was known by many names—such as Aryashura, Matriceta, Patriceta, Matichitra, and Bhavideva—and was a contemporary of King Kaniska of the Kusan Dynasty. Having previously been a strong non-Buddhist believer, he became an extremely devout follower of the Buddha’s path and wrote many works on its various aspects.
Shakyamuni Buddha lived about four centuries before Ashvagosha. He taught sutras dealing with meditative practices for attaining liberation and enlightenment and, in the form of Buddha Vajradhara, tantras covering speedier but more dangerous methods for achieving this latter goal.
Success in following either the sutra or the tantra path to enlightenment depends solely upon your guru devotion, as Lord Buddha indicated in the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarikasutra) and in the Kyedor Shägyü Dorje’i G’ur, an explanatory work to the Hevajra tantra, where he stated that in future times of degeneration he would take the form of gurus and therefore, at such times, gurus should be as respected as buddhas because they are their living representatives.
Guru devotion involves both thought and action. The most important thing is to develop the total conviction that your guru is a buddha—this is a prerequisite for receiving any insight. Whether you are aiming to attain liberation in order to benefit mainly yourself or reach the perfected state of a fully enlightened buddha in order to enlighten all others, your guru can show you the way only if he himself has already gained these achievements. If you doubt your guru’s competence and ability to guide you, your practices will be extremely unstable and you will be unable to make any concrete progress. You must have full confidence that it is possible to become enlightened, that your guru is living proof of this, and that by following the Buddha’s teachings as your guru instructs, you can achieve the same. Only then will it be possible for you to gain any real benefit from your practices.
Seeing only good qualities in your guru, therefore, is the way to develop these qualities yourself. Normally most people are blind to their own shortcomings, while the faults of others shine out clearly. But if you did not possess these same faults yourself, you would be unable to recognize them in others. If there are two pieces of fruit, one ripe and one rotten, and the person next to you takes the ripe one, it is only because of your own greed that you accuse him of being greedy and selfish. If you were unattached to the fruit, it would not matter to you which one he took—you would simply see him as having taken a piece of fruit.
Likewise, if you can train yourself to see only good qualities and never any faults in your guru, this positive outlook will come to pervade, amplify and reflect your own state of mind. As we all have buddha nature within us—the clear, uncontaminated state of pure mind established without any true independent existence—seeing our guru as a buddha gives us the possibility of activating and realizing our own buddha nature. Seeing only our guru’s faults merely reinforces our own shortcomings and negative attitudes; seeing only his perfection enables us to attain the perfection of buddhahood ourselves. Therefore, one of the main practices of guru yoga, particularly in tantra, is to realize the inseparability of our own mind with our guru, the buddhas and our meditation deity, which is a pure manifestation of the enlightened mind. Thus, guru devotion is the root of all attainments.
If your guru acts in a seemingly unenlightened manner and you feel it would be hypocritical to think him a buddha, you should remember that your own opinions are unreliable and the apparent faults you see may be simply a reflection of your own deluded state of mind. Also, you should think that if your guru acted in a completely perfect manner, he would be inaccessible and you would be unable to relate to him. It is therefore out of your guru’s great compassion that he may show apparent flaws. This is part of his skillful means in order for him to be able to teach you; he is mirroring your own faults. Therefore, check within and learn from him how to remove your shortcomings. If you are only intent on criticizing your guru, he will never be able to benefit you.
It was Buddha Vajradhara himself who said that your guru is to be seen as a buddha. Therefore, if you have faith and take refuge in the Buddhist teachings, you will try to understand what Vajradhara meant by this.
Buddhas exert a great positive influence on the world in the same way that the sun does. But just as a magnifying glass is needed to focus the rays of the sun in order for tinder to catch fire, so too is a guru required to focus the buddhas’ virtuous conduct into your mind-stream to inspire you to follow the path. Thus, as living examples representing the buddhas, gurus carry on the work of all the enlightened beings, acting as an accessible focal point for your practices so that you can gain buddhahood yourself.
Through devotion to your guru, showing him respect and making offerings, you accumulate the merit necessary to attain liberation from all suffering. Such service is done not to benefit your guru but for your own sake. When you plant seeds in a field, it is not to benefit the earth—you’re the one who harvests the crops. Therefore, with the proper devotional attitude towards your guru—seeing him as a buddha—the more positive energy you exert in his direction, the closer you come to buddhahood yourself. Likewise, if you hate your guru and generate negative energy towards him, you are deliberately distancing yourself from his enlightened state and freedom from pain. As a result you bring intense suffering upon yourself. Therefore, if you see faults in your guru and tend to belittle him, remember that your opinions are unreliable and that only unhappiness can result from despising the states of happiness he represents.
Remembering your guru’s kindness to teach you during this degenerate age after Shakyamuni Buddha has passed away, you must develop loving respect for him. He teaches you despite your delusions and does not force you to undergo the hardships that many disciples had to endure in the past. He gives you initiations and oral teachings and transmits the unbroken lineages that come from the Buddha himself. He inspires you to attain his state and helps you materially when you need it. Without loving respect for your guru you will never become enlightened; if you don’t respect the state of buddhahood he represents, how can you hope to attain it?
The various aspects of devoting yourself to your guru by means of thought have been taught extensively in such texts as the Gandavyuha Sutra and their scriptural references are detailed in Je Tsongkhapa’s Lam-rim Chen-mo.
Ashvagosha’s Fifty Verses is the most comprehensive summary of devoting yourself to your guru by means of action. Its scriptural sources are a wide range of tantric texts, including the Guhyasamaja, Kalachakra, Chakrasamvara, Vajradakini, and Vajrahridayalamkara tantras. The specific tantric sources for each verse are given in Lama Tsongkhapa’s Fulfillment of All Hopes, his commentary on this text.
As important as guru devotion is for practitioners of sutra, it is even more essential and more emphasized in the study and practice of tantra . This is because tantric techniques are extremely difficult and complicated. If practiced correctly, they can bring you buddhahood within your lifetime, but if not, they can be very dangerous and bring you extremely dire consequences. Therefore, the direct personal guidance of a guru is indispensable.
Since the Fifty Verses outlines specifically how disciples should act with their guru, it is customarily taught before a tantric initiation is given. Once a guru-disciple relationship has been established, disciples are taught guru devotion and the common path of renunciation, bodhicitta, and correct view of emptiness. Then, after receiving the proper initiations, they can be led gradually through the stages of tantra on the firm foundation of guru devotion and the three principal aspects of the path.
In Search of the Self
By Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey at New Delhi, India January 1980 (Last Updated Jun 14, 2009)
This teaching was given at Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre on January 2, 1980. Edited from an oral translation by Robert Thurman. First published in Teachings at Tushita, edited by Nicholas Ribush with Glenn H. Mullin, Mahayana Publications, New Delhi, 1981. Now appears in the 2005 LYWA publication Teachings From Tibet.
We all suffer; many sentient beings experience almost constant misery. However, at present we have the time, space and ability to think about how to get rid of all suffering—not get over just one problem or become a little more peaceful, but completely finish with suffering altogether.
We humans have many methods of finding happiness at our disposal but even though we live in beautiful houses crammed full of all kinds of stuff we are still not satisfied. That’s because there is only one thing that can really eradicate dissatisfaction and bring true happiness: the practice of Dharma.
If we check within ourselves we will discover that all our misery comes from either attachment or hatred. These, in turn, come from an incorrect view of the self. Even at this moment we hold the “I” to be true. In the Madhyamakavatara, Chandrakirti stated that all emotional afflictions arise from ignorance—misapprehension of the nature of the self. This is the root. In order to get rid of all the branches of suffering and prevent them from ever arising again, we need to sever this root. In that way we can put an end to all misery, even birth, sickness, aging and death.
The Buddha’s main teachings on eradicating ignorance by understanding and realizing the wisdom of non-self-existence are found in his Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) Sutras, and these texts are the main scriptural source for the great sage Nagarjuna’s Six-fold Canon of Reasoning, especially his Root Verses on Wisdom (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Other teachings on the wisdom realizing emptiness may be found in Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses; Buddhapalita’s famous Commentary on [Nagarjuna’s] Treatise on the Middle Way (Buddhapalita-Mulamamadhyamakavrtti); Chandrakirti’s Clear Phrases (Prasannapada); and the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.
The essence of all the techniques found in these and other scriptures for developing an understanding of the emptiness of self-existence is the method called the “Four Essential Points,” or the “Four Keys.” These provide a very effective approach to emptiness. We begin by applying these four methods of analysis to gain an understanding of the selflessness of persons and then use them to gain an understanding of the selflessness of phenomena.
The first essential point
The first of the four keys is called “the essential point of ascertaining the object to be eliminated.” We cannot realize emptiness without first knowing what it is that things are empty of; emptiness is not just a vague nothingness. This first point helps us understand how the false self—the object to be refuted and eliminated—exists. We need to recognize how we view the “I” as inherently existent, as if it were independent of the aggregates of body and mind. The “I” appears to be substantially established, existent in its own right, and this mode of existence does not appear to be imposed by our own mental projection.
The way we hold and believe the “I” to exist becomes particularly clear when we’re angry or afraid. At such times we should analyze how the self appears to our mind; how our mind apprehends it. We can provoke these emotions in meditation and, while maintaining them, use a subtle part of our consciousness to recognize how we conceive our “I.”
In order to catch a thief we have to know who the person is and what he or she looks like. The greatest thief of all is our mistaken sense of self—the conception that not only ourselves but all other phenomena as well are truly existent. We believe that things really exist the way they appear to our senses, as objectively established, as existing from their own side. This, then, is what we have to know in order to catch this great thief, who steals all our happiness and peace of mind.
If we do not recognize this wrong conception and simply walk around saying, “Emptiness! Emptiness!” we are likely to fall into one of the two extremes of eternalism or nihilism—believing either that things are inherently existent or that nothing exists at all, thus exaggerating or denying conventional reality.
Therefore, we must recognize the false self, the object of refutation, before we can start actually refuting, or eliminating, it. This is the initial step in developing an understanding of emptiness and the foundation of realizing it. First we must look for the false self, not selflessness. This requires a great deal of meditation.
For our meditation on emptiness to be effective, we need to prepare our mind by purifying negativities and accumulating merit. The essence of purification and creation of merit is the practice of the seven limbs of prostration, offering, confessing, rejoicing, beseeching, requesting and dedicating. We can also engage in preliminaries such as making 100,000 mandala offerings, Vajrasattva mantra recitations and so forth.
When we start observing how the false self—the self we have habitually assumed to exist in persons and objects—manifests, we soon discover that it does not exist at all. Before we begin cultivating this awareness, our “I” seems to really be there, very solidly, but as soon as we start checking, we cannot find it. It disappears. If the “I” truly did exist, the more we searched for it the more concrete it should become…we should at least be able to find it. If it can’t be found, how can it exist?
The second essential point
The inherently existent “I” must exist as either one with the body and mind—that is, identical with them—or separate from them. There is no third way in which it can exist. This is the second of the four keys, ascertaining the logical pervasion of the two possibilities of sameness or difference.
We have to watch for the self-existent “I,” which appears to be established independently, as if it were not created by the mind. If the self does not exist as it appears, we should not believe in it. Perhaps we think it’s someplace else—that it will show up when we meet our guru or that it’s floating around outside the window somewhere. But we need to understand that there’s no third alternative. Therefore, we have to meditate on the second key with awareness that if this apparent “I” is neither identical with nor separate from the five aggregates of body and mind, there’s no way it can exist. At this point it becomes easy for us to understand the general character of emptiness.
The third essential point
The third key is ascertaining the absence of true sameness of the “I” and the five aggregates. Once we have ascertained the object of refutation by meditating on emptiness and seen how it cannot exist in a way other than as one with the five aggregates or separate from them, we concentrate on whether or not the self-existent “I” can exist as one with the five aggregates.
If the “I” is the same as the aggregates, then because there are five aggregates, there must be five continuums of the “I” or, because the “I” is one, the five aggregates must be an indivisible whole. We therefore examine each aggregate to see if it is the same as the self. We ask, “Are my self and my body the same?” “Are my self and my feelings the same?” “Are my self and my discriminating awareness the same?” And so forth.
There are many different analytical procedures to show that the concept of the self as one with the psychophysical aggregates is wrong. I can deal with them only briefly here. For example, if the self were a permanent entity, as self-existence implies, destroying it would be impossible. Then, if the “I” were the same as the body, the body could never die and the corpse could never be burned, because this would destroy the self. This is obviously nonsensical.
Also, the mind and body would be unchanging, because that is the nature of a substantial self. Furthermore, if there were a self-existent “I” identical with the body and the mind, it would be one indistinguishable entity and the individual designations of “my body” and “my mind” would be incorrect.
Thus, there are many different ways we can reason and meditate upon to arrive at the conclusion that reality and our habitual way of perceiving things are completely different. We are not fixed, permanent entities.
The fourth essential point
Having ascertained, as above, that the self and the aggregates are not a true unity, we then consider whether or not our self-existent “I” is different from and unrelated to the aggregates. This is the fourth key, ascertaining the absence of any true difference between the self and the aggregates.
For example, if you have a sheep, a goat and an ox, you can find the ox by taking away the sheep and the goat. Similarly, if the “I” existed separately from the body and the mind, when we eliminated the body and the mind we would be left with a third entity to represent the “I.” But when we search outside of our body, feelings, consciousness etc., we come up with nothing. Generations of yogis have found that there is nothing to be found beyond the aggregates.
Once more, there are many different ways to reason when contemplating the possibility that the self is separate from the aggregates. If they were truly different, there would be no connection between them. When we said, for example, “My head aches,” the “my” would refer to something other than the “head” (the form aggregate) and “ache” (the feeling aggregate); it would be something that existed somewhere else. The aggregate would hurt, not me. If the self were truly a different thing, a true polarity apart from the aggregates, it would be absurd to say, “My head hurts,” “My hand hurts,” etc., as though the pain somehow affected the self.
By performing different kinds of analysis we cultivate the certainty that the self and the aggregates are not truly different.
Meditation on emptiness
Since these four keys contain the essential points of Nagarjuna’s main treatises on the Middle Way, they make it easy to meditate on emptiness.
If we meditate with the four keys to search for the self in our body, from the top of our head to the tips of our toes, and our aggregates of mind as well, we won’t find anything. Thus, we will come to the realization that a fixed, unchanging self does not exist. It’s like looking for a cow in a certain field. We walk all around: up the hills, down the valleys, through the trees, everywhere. Having searched the entire area and found nothing, we arrive at the certainty that the cow simply isn’t there. Similarly, when we investigate the aggregates of body and mind and find nothing, we arrive at the certainty that the self-existent “I” simply isn’t there either. This is the understanding of emptiness.
We then concentrate single-pointedly on the experience of the absence of the self that we had always presumed to exist. Whenever this certainty begins to weaken or lose clarity, we return to our analytical meditation and again check through the four keys. Once more a sharpness of certainty arises and we return to concentrating on it single-pointedly. In this way we cultivate two things: the certainty of finding nothing there and the subjective experience of how this appears. By keeping these two together and not allowing our mind to wander we reach what is called the single-pointed concentration of balanced space-like absorption, wherein everything appears non-dual. Subject and object merge like water poured into water.
We also have to learn what to do when we arise from meditation—in the post-meditation period we have to view everything that appears as illusory. Even though things appear to be self-existent, they are simply the sport of emptiness, like a magician’s creations. This state is called the samadhi of illusory manifestations.
Our practice should alternate in this way between the samadhi of space-like absorption and that of illusory manifestation, thus avoiding the extremes of absolutism and nihilism. This activates the mental factor called ecstasy and we experience intense physical and mental ease. Our meditation just seems to take off on its own without requiring any effort. Once this ecstasy is activated, the power of our meditation increases one hundred times and we achieve penetrative insight into emptiness.
We should spend a great deal of time meditating on the four keys. It may be difficult but it is the most powerful and beneficial form of meditation for counteracting delusions. As Aryadeva said, “Even doubting the validity of emptiness rips samsara to shreds.”
Meditation on emptiness is the most powerful way to purify negative karma. During Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s time there was a king who had killed his own father. He was terrified that this evil act would cause him to be reborn in hell and asked the Buddha for advice. The Buddha instructed him to meditate on emptiness. The king devoted himself to this practice and was able to purify that negative karma from his mindstream.
After Lama Tsongkhapa attained enlightenment he wrote the poem In Praise of the Buddha’s Teaching on Dependent Arising, in which he stated that although all of the Buddha’s teachings are beneficial and undeceiving, the most beneficial and undeceiving, the most miraculously wonderful, is his teaching on emptiness, because by meditating on it sentient beings can cut the root of samsara and attain liberation from all suffering. In awe and amazement, Lama Tsongkhapa thus praised the Buddha’s uncanny perceptiveness and reliability of knowledge as both a scientist and philosopher.
When we understand that the Buddha really did know and describe the true nature of reality by means of his teachings on emptiness, firm faith arises within us. This faith is not based upon stories or fantasy but upon the experience that arises by practicing and realizing the situation for ourselves. We find that reality exists exactly the way the Buddha described it. Furthermore, he discovered this reality a long, long time ago, without the need of so-called scientific instruments.
Death and the Way
By Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey at Dharamsala, India 1976 (Last Updated Jul 11, 2013)
This teaching was given in Dharamsala in 1976, translated by Losang Gyaltsen and prepared by Michael Hellbach and Glenn H. Mullin. It was first published in 1977 in From Tushita. A slightly edited version of this teaching is included in Glenn Mullin’s 1998 book Living in the Face of Death (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications). The version presented here has been lightly edited by Nicholas Ribush from the original.
The tradition of death meditation taught here originated with Buddha Shakyamuni and was practiced by such renowned meditators as the bodhisattva Shantideva, the early Kadampa geshes, Milarepa’s disciple Gampopa, the incomparable yogi Lama Je Tsongkhapa, the Dalai Lamas and many other renowned masters. Eventually it came down to Pabongka Rinpoche, one of the greatest teachers alive at the turn of this [20th] century. Pabongka gave it to Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang, the Junior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was from this perfect guru, Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang, that I heard it.
I myself trained under some twenty gurus, each of whom was without a doubt a fully enlightened buddha. However, from the viewpoint of my personal karmic disposition, the kindest of them all was Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang. The excellence of this master cannot be described. The manner in which he teaches and the subtle skills he adopts to generate a true experience of Dharma in the disciple are so profound that it is almost impossible for even the dullest of listeners to remain unaffected. It is indeed sad that this fully realized being now assumes the form of an old man who can so rarely teach [Kyabje Rinpoche passed away in 1981]. Merely sitting in his presence gives one control over one’s mind. Besides caring for his disciples spiritually, he also does so physically. Many times during the course of my training I was without food day after day, my clothes but tattered rags; it was Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang who saved me.
There are many people who study and talk about Dharma, but never really practice it. Their Dharma is only words. This is because they have not spent sufficient time meditating on death.
The disadvantages of not meditating on death
The disadvantages of not meditating on death are numberless but can be summarized under the following six headings:
- If you do not meditate on death you will not be mindful of your Dharma practice. All of your time will be lost in mundane pursuits. One of the early Kadampa geshes said, “If you do not meditate on death upon waking in the morning, your entire morning will be wasted; if you do not meditate on death at noon, your entire afternoon will be wasted; and if you do not meditate on death in the evening, your entire night will be wasted.” In this way most people waste their entire
- Although you may practice some Dharma your main practice will be procrastination. Many Tibetans told their gurus that they would soon do retreat but, having meditated insufficiently on death, put it off year after year and died before managing to do so.
- Your practice will become impure. It will become mixed with worldly ambitions, such as the eight worldly dharmas. Many practitioners fix their eyes more on becoming scholars or celebrities than on attaining spiritual realization. Jowoje (Atisha) was once asked, “If someone wishes for the happiness of this life alone, what shall he gain?” Jowoje answered, “Just what he wishes for!” “And what shall he gain in future lives?” the disciple asked. “Rebirth in the hell, hungry ghost or animal realms,” was the reply. It is said that in order to practice perfectly, this life must be abandoned. What does that mean? Not that you must abandon your present lifestyle, home, possessions or position, but that you must give up the eight worldly dharmas: wishing to experience wealth, fame, praise or happiness and to avoid poverty, notoriety, slander or discomfort. To differentiate between a true spiritual practitioner and a non-practitioner is simple. A practitioner is one who has abandoned the eight worldly dharmas; a non-practitioner is one who is controlled by them. Geshe Potowa once asked Lama Dromtönpa, “What is the line between Dharma and non-Dharma?” Lama Drom replied, “That which contradicts the beliefs of samsaric people is Dharma; that which does not, is non-Dharma.”
- Your practice will lack stamina. Although you take up a practice, at the first setback you’ll give it up. A small thorn bush grew outside the cave of Kadampa Geshe Karag Gomchung. Every time he entered or went from the cave its thorns would rip his flesh but that bush remained there until he died because this great meditator practiced with such intensity that he never wanted to waste the few moments necessary to cut it down. Geshe Karag Gomchung had realized the fruits of meditating on death.
- You will continue to create negative karma. Without continual awareness of death, attachment to the things of this life persists. Friends and relatives are held as more worthy of love than are strangers and beings who bring you discomfort. This emotional imbalance gives rise to an endless string of mental distortions, which in turn results in the generation of infinite negative karmas. In this way, you lose the happiness of this life and that of all future lives as well.
- You will die in a state of regret. It is certain that death will come. If you do not live in mindfulness of it, it will come as a surprise. At that crucial moment you will realize that all the materialistically oriented attitudes that you have cultivated all your life are of no value and that your wealth, family and power are similarly useless. When death comes, nothing but spiritual realization is of value but, having neglected to practice death awareness, you have neglected to practice Dharma and now stand empty-handed, regret filling your mind. In his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva writes:
When grasped by death’s agents,
What value are friends,
What value are relatives?
At that moment, the only protection
Is the force of goodness,
But to that I never attended.
Kadampa Geshe Kamaba once remarked that we should fear death now while there’s still time to act and at the time of death be fearless. Worldly beings are the opposite. While strong and healthy they never give death a thought, but when death comes they clutch at their breasts in terror. Most practitioners never really begin to practice but procrastinate day after day. Then, lying on their deathbed, they pray for just a few more days of life, but it’s too late: they are now between the jaws of the Lord of Death and the time for practice is but a memory—like a piece of meat that we held in our hands but did not eat, dropped, and is now in the belly of a dog and cannot be brought back. Although regret is pointless, regret arises.
The advantages of meditating on death
The advantages of meditating on death are also numberless but again can be summarized under six headings.
- Your life will become purposeful. In the Sutra of Buddha’s Passing Away (Mahaparinirvana Sutra), it is said: “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is the largest; of all mindfulness meditations, that on death is supreme.” If you practice the death meditation properly, your mind will yearn to seek a deeper understanding of life. You can see this in the biographies of the saints. Buddha himself was turned away from attraction to mundane existence by seeing first a sick man, then an old man and lastly a corpse. The yogi Milarepa was inspired to renounce black magic and search for a more purposeful path by witnessing his magic teacher’s reaction to the death of a patron.
- Mindfulness of death is an extremely powerful opponent to delusion. The strongest opponent to delusion is realization of emptiness but awareness of death is a close second. If you recollect death whenever attachment or aversion arise in your mind, that delusion is instantly destroyed, just as the blow of an iron hammer crushes a stone. The yogis and mahasiddhas of ancient India ate their food out of bowls made from human skulls and blew trumpets made from human thighbones. Similarly, monks painted human skulls on the doors of their toilets. This was not done to scare people but to maintain awareness of death. Even nowadays almost every temple hangs a painting of the Lord of Death holding the whole of conditioned existence in his mouth beside its main entrance; not as a decoration, but to instill the thought of death in all who visit. In tantric practice, we visualize cemeteries filled with corpses and so forth surrounding the mystic mandala.
- Meditation on death is important in the beginning of your practice because it inspires you to practice and practice well.
- Meditation on death is important in the middle of your practice because it inspires you to exert yourself both intensely and with purity.
- Meditation on death is important at the end of your practice because it causes you to perfect and complete your practice. Thus, meditation on death causes you to begin, continue and accomplish your practice. Some people, soon after contacting Dharma, develop a very heavy sense of renunciation and enter into retreat, but after some months their enthusiasm has waned and they yearn to return home. However, they feel forced to stay and complete their proposed retreat because they fear being ridiculed were they to break their practice. They end up cursing their renunciation, which they consider to have been nothing but a source of trouble for them.
- You will die happily and without regret. By maintaining awareness of death while alive, your life will spontaneously incline towards virtue and Dharma practice. Death will not come as a surprise and will bring neither fear nor regret. It is said that the best practitioner dies in a state of bliss, the mediocre practitioner dies happily, and even a poor practitioner has neither regret nor dread at the time of death. We should aim at least to be like the most inferior of these. Milarepa declared, “Terrified of death, I fled to the mountains, where I realized the ultimate nature of the mind. Now I’m no longer afraid.” If we practice as intensely as Milarepa did, there’s no reason why we should not attain an equal level of realization. We have the same kind of body and mental capacity as he did, and the various methods that he applied have come down to us in a pure, unbroken stream through the various lineage gurus. In a way, our opportunity to become enlightened is even greater than his, because a number of oral transmissions not available to Milarepa are now available to us
These, then, are the disadvantages of not meditating on death and the advantages of meditating on it.
How to meditate on death
How should you meditate on death? There are two main ways.
A. The first is the nine-part death meditation (the three roots, the nine reasons and the three determinations). This is the method taught in the sutras and is referred to in both Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation and Lama Tsongkhapa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment.
B. The second is a technique wherein you visualize yourself undergoing the process of death. This is a tantric method and is found in every Highest Yoga Tantra system in the phase of mandala meditation known as taking the three kayas as the path.
A. The nine-part death meditation
The three roots to be meditated on are:
- The inevitability of death.
- The uncertainty of the time of death.
- At the time of death, nothing but your spiritual realization is of value.
The nine reasons and the three determinations are divided equally between the three roots as follows:
1. The inevitability of death
Although death plans to attack, most people live pretending that it does not exist. It is not difficult to prove logically that any given person will die. Taking yourself as an example, you will certainly die, because death is inevitable. How do we know that it’s inevitable? By meditating upon these three reasons:
(a) To date, death has come to all humans. Without mentioning ordinary beings, even the great, realized beings—the arhats, bodhisattvas and buddhas—have died. So why should we expect to survive? Buddha Shakyamuni himself passed away so as to demonstrate impermanence to his disciples. Who do you know that is even a century old? In the face of these facts, it is hard to believe that we alone shall be immortal.
(b) Day by day life ebbs, with no chance of increase. A human’s lifespan can be likened to a pond, the inflowing stream to which has been cut off: moment-by-moment its waters diminish; or to a monk with only 1,000 rupees to his name and no further income: if he spends ten rupees a day, he will eventually be penniless. Shantideva wrote, “Remaining neither day nor night, life is constantly slipping away and never getting any longer. Why should death not come to me?” The length of your life has been decreasing since the moment of your conception. When 100 sheep are taken to the slaughterhouse to be killed by evening, the killing of each one brings the death of the last sheep closer. It is the same with our lifespan: as the minutes are consumed, the hours pass; as the hours are consumed, the days pass; as the days are consumed, the months pass; and as the months are consumed, the years pass. With the consumption of our years, death rapidly approaches.
(c) Although alive, we find little time to practice Dharma. Our lifespan can probably be divided as follows: twenty years are spent sleeping, twenty years working, ten years playing, five years eating and so on. We spend perhaps four or five years in practice. These are the parts that constitute the composite phenomenon that is the life of the average person. As the Buddha pointed out, anything that is composite is doomed to fall apart; that which is a collection of parts exists in dependence on those parts, which sooner or later must disintegrate.
If you meditate intensively upon this first root and its three reasons, you can, within seven days, realize the inevitability of death. From this realization will arise the first of the three determinations: the determination to practice Dharma.
2. The uncertainty of the time of death
This, the second root, is more difficult to realize fully. Many people live with the understanding that eventually they must die but few truly believe that they could be dead a minute from now. To generate this awareness, meditate on the following three reasons:
(a) The lifespan of humans on this planet is not fixed. Thousands of years ago, the lifespan of humans was measured in centuries; now it is less than a hundred years; soon it will last only a decade. Human lifespan is especially unstable in this degenerate phase of the eon. You may think that you have a long time to live because you are still young, but look at the aged carrying their dead children to the cemetery. You may think that you will live long because you have sufficient wealth to buy good food and medicines, but look at the old beggars and the millionaires who died young. You may think that you will live long because you are healthy, but this is also not a sound idea; many people die healthy while many sick ones live on, year after year.
(b) Many forces oppose life and few support it. The evil spirits that can terminate a human life number more than 80,000; the 424 diseases hover around us like a fog. These spirits and diseases wait for us like a cat outside a rat hole. Furthermore, the four elements that constitute the physical base of our being—earth, water, fire and air—are like four snakes in a single vessel, the stronger continually trying to overcome the weaker. When these elements are in harmony, we enjoy health, but when they fall into discord, our life is endangered. Moreover, that which we use to sustain life can easily become a cause of death: houses collapse, killing the inhabitants; foods turn to poison; medicines used improperly can cause death; the various means of transportation, intended to aid human existence, often result in death. In his Precious Garland, Nagarjuna wrote, “O King, life is like a butter lamp in a windstorm.” Whether the lamp is full, half-full or almost empty is of little consequence; it can be extinguished at any moment. Similarly, your age is no indication of how close you are to death.
(c) The human body is extremely fragile. We may say, “Granted, there are many opponents to life but I am powerful enough to endure them all,” but this is just wishful thinking. The human body is destroyed as easily as a dewdrop is knocked off the tip of a blade of grass. As Nagarjuna said in his Friendly Letter, “If the entire world will be destroyed at this eon’s end, what to say of the bodies of humans?” Kunga Rinpoche once said, “If you think you will first complete your worldly duties and then practice Dharma, bear in mind that the death of today may come before the practice of tomorrow.”
By meditating diligently on this second root and its three reasons, there will arise the second of the three determinations: the determination to practice Dharma immediately.
3. At the time of death, nothing but your spiritual realization is of value
To become convinced of this third root, meditate on the following three reasons:
(a) Wealth, possessions, fame or social power are of no value. At the time of your death you may have a hundred bricks of gold in your house but not a single one will be of benefit. A beggar must leave behind even his walking stick. A king may have a million subjects and a thousand queens but not one will be able to accompany him to the next life. As Buddha said, “Although you may have enough food and clothing to last a hundred years, when you die you go on alone, naked and unfed.”
(b) Family, friends and relatives are of no value. You are born alone and must die alone. When you are dying, all your loved ones may press down on your body trying to prevent death from taking you away but it will be of no avail; nor will a single one accompany you. The mahasiddha Maitripa said, “My friend, dying is like passing alone through a dangerous valley filled with robbers. Not one of your queens, sons, daughters or subjects will come with you then. Therefore, prepare yourself well.” In his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva wrote, “Leaving all behind, I must depart alone. Alas, not knowing this, I committed all kinds of evil for the sake of family and friends, but who among them will help me face the Lord of Death?”
(c) Even your body will be of no value. Though you have had your body since leaving your mother’s womb and have clothed it to save it from the sufferings of heat and cold and fed it to spare it the pangs of hunger, at death it must be abandoned. The stream of consciousness goes on alone.
By meditating intensively on this third root and its three reasons, the third of the three determinations will arise: the determination to practice Dharma purely, unmixed with materialistic tendencies.
Shantideva wrote, “At the time of death, only goodness is of value but to that I did not attend!” If you know that you are moving to a country where the only valid currency is gold, you would be wise to convert all your old currency while you still have the opportunity. At the time of death, the only valid currency is spiritual realization, so you should practice Dharma intensely to gain that currency while you still have the chance.
How exactly do you conduct this nine-part death meditation?
Sitting in the correct posture, begin by glancing over the six disadvantages of not remembering death and the six advantages of remembering it. Having spent five or ten minutes on this, glance through each of the three roots with its corresponding reasons and determinations. Then take your mind back to the first reason of the first root, and hold it there for twenty to thirty minutes, entering into formal meditation on that point. The first day, do formal meditation on the first of the nine reasons; the second day, on the second reason and so forth, gradually working your way through the entire meditation.
To conclude each session, glance through the remainder of the points, dwell for a short time on the three determinations, and at the very end, recite a short dedication prayer such as the following:
By the power of this practice,
May I quickly achieve perfect buddhahood,
And thus may each and every sentient being
Come to realize wisdom’s eternal happiness.
B. Visualizing yourself undergoing the death process
There are both exoteric and esoteric ways of practicing this technique.
The exoteric way
Visualize yourself lying on your bed, dying. Your parents and friends surround you, lamenting. The radiance of your countenance has faded and your nostrils droop. Your lips dry and slime begins to form on your teeth. All grace has gone from your form and your body looks quite ugly. Your body heat drops, your breathing becomes heavy and you exhale more than you inhale. You remember all the negative karma you created during your life and are filled with regret. You look to all sides for help but there’s none to be found. Do this as convincingly as you can and see how you feel. Do attachment or fear arise? By meditating in this way you can discover which delusions will disturb you at death and work on abandoning them even from today.
The esoteric way
The esoteric technique of meditation on the death process is much more complex. To do it in full detail requires tantric initiation. This method is performed in all Highest Yoga Tantra systems in the phase of the practice known as taking the three kayas as the path. Only a limited portion of this teaching can be imparted openly; the explanations concerning the mandala, the five buddha families and the clear light must be omitted.
This meditation deals with the dissolution of the twenty-five course substances, an important topic in tantric practice. What are the twenty-five coarse substances?
- The five psychophysical constituents (skandhas): form, feeling, recognition, volitional formations and consciousness.
- The five imperfect wisdoms: the mirror-like wisdom, the wisdom of equality, the discriminating wisdom, the accomplishing wisdom and the wisdom of the nature of phenomena. These wisdoms are called “imperfect” because they are mentioned in reference to someone who has not attained buddhahood.
- The four elements: earth, water, fire and wind.
- The six sources: the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind senses.
- The five objects: colors and shapes, sounds, odors, tastes and tangibles.
When death comes naturally, it comes as a process of gradual disintegration. The first stage of this process is the simultaneous disintegration of (i) the psychophysical constituent of form, (ii) the imperfect mirror-like wisdom, (iii) the earth element, (iv) the eye sense and (v) colors and shapes. An outer sign manifests as a result of the disintegration of each of these five attributes, respectively as follows: (i) the body withers and loses vitality, (ii) the eyes blur, (iii) one can no longer move the limbs, (iv) blinking ceases, and (v) the radiance of the body fades. These are outer signs and can therefore be witnessed by others. With the disintegration of these five attributes, the dying person experiences an inner sign, which can be seen by that person alone: a mirage-like vision filling all space.
The second stage is the disintegration of (i) the psychophysical constituent of feeling, (ii) the imperfect wisdom of equality, (iii) the water element, (iv) the ear sense and (v) sounds. Again, there is an outer sign accompanying the disintegration of each of these five attributes. The outer signs are: (i) one loses discrimination as to whether physical sensations are pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent, (ii) one is no longer mindful of the feelings accompanying the mental consciousness, (iii) the lips dry, perspiration stops and blood and semen coagulate, (iv) inner and outer sounds can no longer be heard and (v) even the subtle humming in the ears ceases. The dying person experiences the inner sign of a smoke-like vision filling all space.
The third stage is the disintegration of (i) the psychophysical constituent of recognition, (ii) the imperfect discriminating wisdom, (iii) the fire element, (iv) the nose sense and (v) smells. The outer signs are: (i) one can no longer recognize the purpose of anything said by those who surround one, (ii) memory of even the names of parents, family, friends and so forth is lost, (iii) bodily heat lessens and the powers of digestion and food assimilation cease, (iv) exhalation is strong and inhalation weak and (v) the power to recognize smell fades. The dying person experiences the inner sign of sparks of fire filling space.
The fourth stage is the disintegration of (i) the psychophysical constituent of volitional formations, (ii) the imperfect accomplishing wisdom, (iii) the wind element, (iv) the tongue sense, (v) tastes and (vi) the body sense and tangible objects. The outer signs are: (i) all physical abilities fail, (ii) all external purpose is forgotten, (iii) the major and minor winds dissolve into the heart chakra and inhalation and exhalation cease, (iv) the tongue becomes thick and short and its root turns blue, (v) all powers of taste fade, and (vi) one cannot experience roughness or smoothness. The inner sign is that of a vision of light, like the last flickering of a candle.
At this point in the process, a medical doctor would declare the person dead. However, as consciousness still abides in the body, the person is still alive.
In the fifth stage, with the loss of the wind energy supporting it, a remnant of the original sperm, which came from the father at the time of conception and has since been stored in the crown chakra, flows down into the central channel and comes to the heart. Due to its passing through the knots of the chakras, a vision of snowy whiteness is experienced.
In the sixth stage, with the loss of the wind energy supporting it, a remnant of the original ovum, which came from the mother at the time of conception and has since been stored in the navel chakra, flows up into the central channel and also comes to the heart. Due to its passing through the knots of the chakras, a vision of sunset-like redness is experienced.
In the seventh stage, the remnants of the sperm and ovum now come together and a vision of darkness is experienced, as when the sky is completely overcast with thick clouds. Here, ordinary persons fall into a faint, but for a tantric yogi, this is an excellent condition for special meditation.
In the eighth stage, eventually the heart gives a slight tremble and the consciousness passes out of the body. There is an experience of clear light, as of the coming of dawn on a dark and moonless morning. This is the clear light of death, the appearance of which indicates that the death process is complete.
For the majority of beings, these experiences are totally uncontrolled and terrifying, but because of the preparations made while alive, tantric practitioners have mastery of them and use them to their advantage. Many lamas have attained enlightenment at this very moment of death.
Wind and consciousness are the most important topics in tantra. Both have gross and subtle aspects. Gross wind forms the body of this life; gross consciousness gives it sensory awareness. At the time of death, both of these gross qualities dissolve into their subtle aspects, which go on to enlightenment.
The real palace of the mind is the heart. Here, mind resides in the non-dissipating drop between the ovum and sperm remnants of mother and father. This is the gross non-dissipating drop; it is called non-dissipating because it endures until death. The subtle non-dissipating drop is the combination of subtle wind and consciousness; it is called non-dissipating because it endures until enlightenment. Meditation on the death process involves meditation on both of these drops.
The importance of meditating on death
Meditation on impermanence is of paramount importance. It was the Buddha’s first teaching when he taught the four noble truths at the Deer Park, Sarnath, and it was his final teaching, because he died to impress the idea of impermanence upon the minds of his disciples.
The Buddha once said, “Everything in the three worlds is as impermanent as an autumn cloud. The birth and death of beings is like scenes in a drama. Human life is like a flash of lightning in the sky or like the waters of a mountain stream.”
If you meditate properly on death in accordance with either of the two methods, the nine-part death meditation or the technique of visualizing yourself undergoing the death process, there is no doubt that you will benefit.
If a dog rushes out to bite you, there’s no value in merely experiencing fear; you have to use the fear you feel to avoid being bitten. Similarly, there is no point in merely fearing death; use your fear of death to develop the wisdom that is beyond the fangs of death.
You should try to practice Dharma, practice it right now and practice it purely. Dharma is the map that shows you the way to realization of the conventional and ultimate modes of existence; it is the food that nourishes pilgrims, the escort that guides you through the hazardous passes on the road to enlightenment.
Transference of consciousness
Practice has many levels, the most basic of which is the keeping of a good heart, a heart of love and compassion. Even if you cannot find the strength or time to engage in higher meditational practices or philosophical study, you should at least try to maintain a sympathetic attitude towards your fellow beings, an attitude of never harming but only helping others. If you can do this, your negativities will slowly fall away. Then, at the time of death, you will be able to take refuge in the Three Jewels and be confident of obtaining a good rebirth. This is the method of transference of consciousness (po-wa) for practitioners of least capability.
More ambitious practitioners try to develop renunciation, the three higher trainings—morality, concentration and wisdom—and the enlightened attitude of bodhicitta, the wish to attain buddhahood in order to benefit all sentient beings. When such practitioners have gained a certain degree of accomplishment of these qualities, they enter the ocean of tantra in order to realize their spiritual aspirations more quickly; only through the practice of tantra is it possible to attain fully completed buddhahood in as short a period as two or three years. Nevertheless, even though it is possible to attain enlightenment this quickly, not all practitioners can do so. Therefore, the various techniques of transference of consciousness for practitioners of highest motivation were taught.
Transference of consciousness literally means “migration.” This is because the last thought you have when dying is the force that determines your next rebirth. Many people have led virtuous lives but, by having a negative thought when dying, have fallen to a lower realm, while others have led evil lives but, by having a positive thought when dying, have gained a higher rebirth. The yoga of transference of consciousness takes advantage of this phenomenon.
The exclusively Mahayana techniques of transference of consciousness may be divided into two categories: those taught in the sutras and those taught in the tantras.
Transference of consciousness in sutra: the five powers
The sutra method is called application of the five powers, because when you know death is approaching, you apply the powers of intention, the white seed, familiarity, destruction and prayer.
- The power of intention. Generate the firm intention not to let your mind become separated during death, intermediate state or rebirth from the aspiration to attain fully completed buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.
- The power of the white seed. Try to rid your mind of all forms of physical attachment by giving away all your wealth, property and possessions.
- The power of destruction. Try to destroy the stains of all the negative karmas you have collected during your lifetime by applying the four opponent powers: regret; resolve not to create such negative karmas again; taking refuge in the Three Jewels and generating bodhicitta; and purifying the root of the stains by meditating on emptiness, Vajrasattva and so forth. If you have received any tantric initiations, request your lama to reinitiate you or, if this is not possible, perform the self-initiation ritual.
- The power of familiarity. Generate bodhicitta as intensely as possible.
- The power of prayer. Here, prayer refers to the aspiration of the true Mahayana practitioner that all the obscurations, negative karma and sufferings of others may ripen onto oneself and that one will never be separated from the Mahayana attitude of wanting to achieve complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
One day Geshe Potowa was sitting on his throne giving a discourse when suddenly he said, “May I always be a protector for those who are helpless and a guide to those in confusion.” Then he died.
When nearing death, Geshe Chekawa told his disciples that he had long been praying to take rebirth in the lowest hell in order to be able to benefit the sentient beings there but that recently he had had a dream indicating that he would be reborn in a pure land. He requested his disciples to make many offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas that this might be avoided and his prayer fulfilled.
This application of these five powers at the time of death guarantees a rebirth with conditions suitable for continued practice of the Mahayana path.
Transference of consciousness in tantra
If you have received a tantric initiation, you should try to practice the tantric method of transference of consciousness. There are many variations of this method depending on the tantric system into which you have been initiated and where you want to be reborn. One of the most popular is that found in the Vajrayogini tantra. It is said that initiation into the practice of Vajrayogini is a ticket to the land of the dakinis.
Transference of consciousness as taught in the tantras is called the “forceful method” because even an extremely deluded person who has performed the most negative actions during life can take rebirth in a pure land by means of it. Its practice during life in order to prepare for death is called the “forceful practice” because merely by saying the syllable Phat! your consciousness is ejected from your body and by saying the syllable Hic! it is brought back in. The sign that you have accomplished this practice is that a blister breaks out on the crown of your head and exudes a few drops of blood and pus.
However, we are not permitted to teach tantric methods to non-initiates. Buddha Vajradhara himself said, “One should not pour the milk of a snow lion into a clay pot.” Not only does the milk turn sour but the pot is ruined as well. Some people accuse tantric teachers of being tight-fisted for maintaining secrecy, but this is a stupid accusation, obviously made by those with no understanding of tantra. Teaching tantra to a spiritually immature being is like tying a child to a wild elephant. Therefore, such great practitioners as the Fifth Dalai Lama have stressed the importance of gaining an experience of the fundamentals common to both sutra and tantra before specializing in tantric practice.
Q: What can be done to benefit a dying person?
Gen Rinpoche: It is helpful to recite mantras in the person’s ear. The mantras of Buddha Shakyamuni, OM MUNÉ MUNÉ MAHAMUNA-YE SVAHA; Avalokiteshvara, OM MANI PADME HUM; Arya Tara, OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SVAHA; and Manjushri, OM AH RA PA TSA NA DHIH, are easy to say yet very effective in leaving strong karmic imprints on the dying person’s mental continuum. These mantras are tremendously powerful and, without doubt, would be of immeasurable benefit to a dying person. It is also helpful to place an image of a buddha or a bodhisattva where the person will notice it. In particular, if the person is a religious practitioner, you should recite the mantra of the person’s spiritual teacher and show him or her a photograph of that teacher.
The most important thing is to help the dying person generate and maintain a virtuous attitude. Don’t do anything that might agitate or anger the person. Dying with a positive attitude almost certainly guarantees a good rebirth.
After death, the person’s possessions should be given away as offerings to such objects of virtue as the Three Jewels or used in tantric offering rituals (tsog). The person’s spiritual teachers should be asked to make special prayers, because the guru-disciple relationship is especially significant and anything a guru does for a deceased disciple, or a disciple for a deceased guru, has extraordinary effects. Parents and friends should also offer prayers, as they too can greatly affect the person’s rebirth. There are many examples of people who died in negative states of mind and were heading for rebirth in the hells but who, because of the prayers and offerings of their loved ones, took a higher rebirth.
In his Compendium of Metaphysics (Abhidharmasamuccaya), Arya Asanga explains in depth how to handle a dead or dying person.
Q: Should one do the above for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike?
Gen Rinpoche: The buddhas and bodhisattvas are universal protectors and do not discriminate, so why should we? However, if the person is a Buddhist, because of the bond between you, anything you do will have greater impact.
Q: In the West, we often do not tell a dying person that he or she is, in fact, dying. Do you think that this is wise or unwise?
Gen Rinpoche: It depends upon the person. It is better to tell practitioners so that they can then put all their effort into practice. They will not be scared by knowing that they are dying and may be able to practice transference of consciousness. If people are not practitioners, perhaps there’s no point in telling them. They don’t need to be terrified.
Q: How long does consciousness remain in the body after a person is ostensibly dead? How long should the corpse be left untouched?
Gen Rinpoche: If the dying person is a great yogi, consciousness may remain in the body for days or even months. For example, one of the previous Panchen Lamas remained in his body, in meditation, for almost a year after he seemed dead. He died in Kham, in eastern Tibet, but his body was brought to central Tibet, a journey of many months, before his consciousness left. Even a non-practitioner’s consciousness may remain for up to three days. Therefore, a corpse should never be moved until the signs appear that indicate consciousness has departed. The strongest sign of this is the emission of a drop of blood from the nostrils or fluid from the sexual organ. A less certain sign is that of a foul smell coming from the corpse. If the body is cremated before this time it is tantamount to murder. Actually, it is preferable that the body not even be touched before the consciousness departs. If it is, the consciousness will probably leave from the point where the body was first touched. Since it is more favorable for the consciousness to leave via the upper rather than the lower parts, the crown of the head should be touched first.
Q: Why was burial so rare in Tibet?
Gen Rinpoche: It was considered preferable to offer the body to the birds as the person’s final act of charity. Only when a body was considered unfit for this was it buried. It was customary for great practitioners to do the special tantric rite of chöd before dying, offering their body to the birds; those who couldn’t do the rite themselves would have a chöd practitioner do it for them. In this way, however many birds were invited, that many would come to the feast. If the corpse was small and could feed only ten birds, only ten birds would come; if it was big enough to feed twenty, twenty would come. It is said that birds summoned in this way are manifestations of dakinis and follow a code of ethics in devouring the corpse. Usually the brain would be removed from the corpse and mixed with chickpea flour. When the birds had finished eating the rest of the corpse, this mixture would be fed to them. Only then would they fly away, satisfied.
Q: What is the source of tremendous amount of Tibetan literature describing death and the after-death state?
Gen Rinpoche: These texts were written by experienced yogis who had attained clairvoyance or extrasensory perception and are not like books written today. These days, as soon as someone learns to write, he or she starts composing books. The yogis of old wrote only from their own experience. Also, the Buddha himself taught a great deal about the intermediate state in both the sutras and the tantras.
Turning the Wheel of the Dharma: Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s first teaching of 1994
The following is a translation of the teaching Gen Rinpoche gave on Sunday 20 March, 1994. It has been edited by Ven. Ani Sönam Chökyi from the oral translation by Losang Dawa.
(c) Copyright Dhargyey Buddhist Centre.
Today is the first day of this year’s teaching. Of the twelve months of the western year two are already gone and only ten remain. According to the lunar calendar it is already the 10th day of the year. Thus no-one can say that there is one year–1994–remaining.
I am drawing your attention to time’s passing to remind you that your lives are also running quickly to their ends. The past has gone, and time spent cannot be regained.
Whatever studies and practices people engaged in last year have left rich and lasting predispositions–latencies–on their mind-streams, but people who put all their effort into earning money have already spent a large chunk of it.
The great Tibetan master Jamgön Lama Tsong Khapa says that this human life of leisure and endowment is far more precious than the wish-granting jewel–though such a jewel can immediately fulfil one’s desires for any amount of money or great wealth. Although this jewel would be regarded as an extremely valuable possession, compared to precious human life it is nothing.
“This human life of leisure and endowment
is far more precious than a wish-granting jewel”
By using our precious human life wisely the highest state–of Enlightenment–can be gained even in one lifetime. Failing that, one may attain nirvana–the state of liberation from ordinary existence and its suffering. At the very least one can use this life’s potential to achieve another rebirth as a human, or as a being in one of the other favourable states of existence. This human life can be used to achieve any of the goals one sets. Praying to a wish-granting jewel, however, will not help you in any way to achieve one of these three goals.
Not all humans living in this world have what is known as “the precious human life of leisure and endowment”. Only humans who have Dharma contact, the final source of temporary and ultimate happiness, have it. Among hundreds of thousands of people only one or two have this.
Concerning the quality of this precious human life Jamgön Lama Tsong Khapa says, “Finding such a wonderful life, full of such potential, occurs only this once.” This is stressed to make us realize that in all our limitless past existences we have not found such an opportunity as we have now, and in the future it will be extremely difficult to have such a wonderful chance again. Unless the correct causes are created–virtuous activities and enlightening deeds–then we are most unlikely in a future life to gain the chance that we have now.
An example that illustrates this is that of a beggar finding a precious jewel while sifting through a heap of refuse. This would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the beggar–no-one would ever expect it to happen again. In our own case it is most likely that it is only this one time that we will be born as a human with the precious qualities. This is a very rare occurrence–we should make the most of it.
Jamgön Lama Tsong Khapa then says, “It would not matter, if this life were solid and lasting as stone.” However this is not the case. Life is fleeting, highly perishable, and passes in a flash, like lightning in the night sky.
Human life is difficult to find because it is a result that arises from certain causes and it is rare for beings to create these causes. One can see that human life is difficult to find when one considers the enormous numbers of sentient beings and realizes that humans are only a tiny fraction of that number. One can also appreciate the difficulty of finding human life through contemplating the various analogies of its rarity–a human life is like a single grain of sand among all the sands of the Ganges; finding such a human life is as difficult as it would be for a blind tortoise to find a golden ring that was floating on the ocean, and succeed in putting its head through the ring.
“To expect a rich harvest without sowing
healthy seeds is a vain hope …”
Human life arises from certain causes and conditions. To expect a rich harvest without sowing healthy seeds at the right time and in the right conditions would be a vain hope; likewise, it would be an empty hope for us to expect to gain a precious human life in the future without creating the correct causes now, in this life. To do this we must engage in positive–virtuous–activities. It is this simple–no cause, no effect.
Of particular importance is to live a pure, ethical life. This is the main cause of gaining a human life in the future. Ethics are of two types: those observed by the ordained and those of lay people. It is not necessary to be ordained to be able to create the causes for a precious human rebirth (although it would be a wonderful thing to have such precious qualities). Even by following the lay ethics such a life can be gained.
These are the teachings about precious human rebirth and the qualities of human life that Buddha taught and that are recorded in the scriptures. The great Tibetan saint Milarepa pointed out: “The more you contemplate and reason the teachings of the Buddha, the more clear they become. Things which seemed like contradictions at first are clarified, and an ever-increasing understanding arises.“
People like ourselves who have come into contact with the teachings must have had contact with Dharma in the past. This will also be likely to repeat itself in future lives. If you try your best to apply yourselves to study and contempla-tion of the teachings you will find a great surge in your enthusiasm for practice, your wisdom will become ever more keen, and your reasoned faith in the teachings deeper.
Your life will be over in a flash, like night lightning. A healthy young person goes shopping in the market place but is carried back a corpse on a stretcher–such is the uncertainty of life’s duration even if you are in perfect health.
This wonderful life is short and fragile by nature. Please understand this. It is not good enough to think, “I will practise well in the future”. Practise right now!
It has been said by a great master, “Death will come before the time of tomorrow’s practice.”
Take this advice to heart.
For meditation today, as all these teachings have come from the Lord Buddha, we will meditate on Buddha Shakyamuni on the crown of our heads.
Turning the Wheel of the Dharma: Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey Teaches the Six Perfections
From a teaching given by the Most Venerable Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey at the Dhargyey Buddhist Centre, Dunedin, Sunday 29th May 1994. It has been edited by Ven. Ani Sönam Chökyi from the oral translation by Losang Dawa.
(c) Copyright Dhargyey Buddhist Centre.
When we meet here we say many prayers. The first are the prayers of Refuge and Bodhicitta — generation of the altruistic mind — directed to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha:
I go for Refuge until the time of my Enlightenment To the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha Community. Through the practice of generosity and the other perfections, May I attain the state of Enlighten-ment to be able to benefit all sentient beings.
Within the practice of generosity are included the practice of the other perfections–morality, patience, enthusiastic perseverance, concentration and wisdom. The practices of the Bodhisattvas are myriad and vast yet can be subsumed within the practice of these six perfections, from generosity to wisdom.
This morning I will explain the six perfections. Please listen carefully and retain these instructions.
In the “Song of Spiritual Experience” Jamgön Lama Tsong Khapa says, “Generosity is like a wish-fulfilling jewel, granting the wishes of all sentient beings,” and “Giving is the sharpest sword to cut through the knot of miserliness,” and “A person who engages in selfless generosity will gain fame and renown in all the ten directions.” (The ten directions are the four cardinal directions–North, South, East and West; the four sub- directions–NE, NW, SE, SW; and above and below.)
Thus Bodhisattvas follow the path of generosity, giving material resources, painstakingly accumulated merits, and even parts of their bodies, to the sentient beings who are needy. The wise follow the path of the practice of generosity.
If a person practises generosity but lives an immoral life, the fruits of generosity will not be enjoyed as a human in their next life. They will not be born as a human or in another higher realm but as a lesser creature such as those of the Naga realms. To enjoy the fruits of generosity in a higher realm there is a need to live an ethical life.
Tsultrim, morality, literally means “moral discipline”. The practice of the perfection of morality is described as “The cleansing water washing away the dirt of immoral deeds,” and as “The cooling moonlight soothing the pain of those scorched by immoral activities.” Morality is strictly guarded by the Bodhisattvas–as strictly as they would protect their own eyes. In a situation where we expect harm we instinctively cover our eyes; in the same way the sublime and holy are meticulous in guarding their morality.
The third perfection is patience. This is very important because although one may practise generosity and gather immense merit, and practise morality and create the causes for a bright future life, these virtuous causes can be wiped out by a moment of anger.
Zöpa, or the practice of patience, is the supreme ornament adorning the powerful Bodhisattvas. Of all forms of ascetic practice, tolerance or patience is the supreme.
Patience is to anger as the garuda is to the naga. (The garuda is a mythical bird whose main prey is the naga, a serpentine creature.) There is nothing like patience for cooling the heat of anger. Anger is the most destructive of all the delusions because it destroys the goodness collected from all other practices.
When you have the armour-like protection of patience you will not be harmed by external circumstances such as the bad treatment and harsh words directed to you by others, just as a soldier with good armour will not be harmed by spears and arrows in battle.
We need to persevere in developing our practice of patience so that we can remain undisturbed and peaceful at all times. Develop patience as a part of all your practices.
The fourth perfection is the perfection of enthusiastic perseverance. If we have constant diligence and a sense of joyful perseverance in our spiritual practices then our realizations–the deep experiences and understanding gained from our study of the Buddhas’ teachings–will increase like the waxing moon.
When you have tsön.dru, enthusiastic perseverance or joyful application, all actions of body, speech and mind become meaningful and purposeful. When you have enthusiastic perseverance, whatever virtuous projects you embark upon will be successfully completed. Thus, bearing in mind the benefits of enthusiastic perseverance, we must develop this powerful practice.
The fifth perfection is the perfection of concentration, the king that rules the mind. A person with concentration has control over the mind. A concentrated mind remains unshakeable like the King of Mountains (Mount Meru) that is not moved by even the great winds and forces of destruction.
A mind with single-pointed concentration can be directed to, and remain focused on, any object. For example, the concentrated mind can hold to its object, emptiness, with perfect clarity and continuity undisturbed by extraneous thoughts. A person who develops real calm abiding (a very high level of concentration), generates what is known as physical and mental pliancy and bliss. The great yogis and bodhisattvas persevere meticulously, doing everything that is necessary to cultivate calm abiding and destroy the enemy of distractedness.
The last of the six perfections is the perfection of wisdom. Profound wisdom is the perfect healthy eyes to see the ultimate reality–suchness–of all that exists. It is this wisdom, understanding the ultimate mode of existence of all things, which cuts through the root of cyclic existence. It is the practice most highly acclaimed in all scriptures–the torch dispelling the darkness of ignorance. It is spoken of by the Buddha in many scriptures as the most precious of all qualities.
If there is anyone who is keen to escape ordinary existence they must do all they can to develop this wisdom vision which sees how things actually exist throughout time and space. The practitioner must pursue this path of wisdom with all effort and diligence. It is only in wisdom that the path of deliverance from ordinary existence can be found.
There are beings who have developed the perfect concentration of calm abiding yet have not developed wisdom. Such power of mind, which can remain focused single-pointedly on its object even for aeons, will not lead to the severing of the roots of cyclic existence when wisdom is lacking.
Others, who have developed wisdom but lack concentration and thus cannot focus steadily and continuously on this understanding, also will be unable to cut through the root of ordinary existence. The two together–a mind with perfect understanding, focusing clearly and steadily on the ultimate nature of reality–are needed to sever the roots of ordinary existence.
The “Song of Spiritual Experience” says, “Thus work on developing and increasing this path of combined calm abiding and wisdom.”
What I have just explained is very important–the essence of the practice of Bodhisattvas on the path to Enlightenment.
Now meditate, recollecting the six perfections and the part each plays in a person’s spiritual growth.
Turning the Wheel of the Dharma: Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey Teaches on Pure Practice
From a teaching given by the Most Venerable Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey at the Dhargyey Buddhist Centre, Dunedin, Sunday 11th September 1994. It has been edited by Ven. Ani Sönam Chökyi from the oral translation by Losang Dawa.
(c) Copyright Dhargyey Buddhist Centre.
Because people interested in Buddhism have different levels of intellect, aptitude and development, Buddha did not give one stereotyped teaching but taught many paths. He taught the paths of Shravakas (Hearers) and of Pratyekabuddhas (Solitary Realizers), collectively known as the paths of the lesser vehicle, and the paths of the Bodhisattvas, and tantra, collectively referred to as the Bodhisattva paths.
For a Buddhist practitioner there are many choices–check your aptitude and find a suitable practice.
Some feel that doing retreat is the most suitable choice of practice, while others feel that gathering merits on a spiritual pilgrimage will be more beneficial. There are a multitude of practices that can be done. We must choose those that best suit our individual dispositions and ability.
Some teachings are suitable to be given privately to a single person, such as the teachings of the eighty great tantric adepts of India. It would be wrong to broadcast such teachings to the general public. Similarly, specific advice given by a master to a disciple should not be taken by others as a general teaching. When Milarepa told Rechungpa, “Listening to teachings is not necessary,” it was because Rechungpa had mastered all the teachings. It would be quite misleading to apply such teachings generally. There are teachings given for the common good of all, and others given to particular individuals to suit their own special needs. Milarepa in fact generally emphasised the need to listen to as many teachings as possible.
For us to practise Dharma purely we must give up attachment to the Eight Worldly Dharmas–the eight worldly hopes and fears.
There was a geshe of the ancient monastery of Retring, whose main practice was circumambulating the stupa. Dromtönpa, observing this, spoke to the geshe, advising him, “It is very good that you are circumambulating but it would be better if you practised Dharma!” The geshe thought to himself, “Circumambulation does not seem to be a very good practice; perhaps I’d better read scriptures!” Dromtönpa again told him, “You are doing fine with your reading of scriptures but it would be much better if you practised Dharma.” So the geshe thought that perhaps he should concentrate on meditation, but again he was advised that although meditation was good he would be better off doing a pure dharma practice. The geshe, who had now run out of ideas about what he should do, asked Drom, “What do you mean by ‘a pure Dharma practice’?” Dromtönpa told him, “You should give up your attachment to the eight worldly hopes and fears.”
Dromtönpa was also circumambulating but with a different attitude–he was constantly repeating a verse from Nagarjuna’s Friendly Letter of advice to the king, about the need to abandon the eight worldly dharmas in order to engage in a pure practice.
Another great master, also a disciple of Atisha, was Naljorpa Drag Chödrugpa. Atisha became very ill and everyone feared that he may pass away at that time. Drag Chödrugpa asked for a final teaching about his personal practice. He asked if he should meditate intensively but was told that this was not a good idea. Then he asked if it would be better to combine some meditation with teaching. Again he was told that this was not a good idea. After some time, Atisha passed away. Drag Chödrugpa offered a meal to all the great lamas of the area, inviting Dromtönpa as the highest lama and others such as Geshe Chengawa and Geshe Potowa. During the meal they talked, and at one point Drag Chödrugpa turned to Dromtönpa and said, “Dromtönpa, you have only one fault. You always say, ‘I don’t know.’ But it is not that you don’t know–you are the lamp of dharma. Now that our great master Atisha has passed away, you must let you knowledge of the teachings shine forth.” He gave similar advice to all those lamas present–Potowa, Chengawa, Puchungwa, and others.
Then he said that from the following day he would confine himself to strict meditation. People would at times see him circumambulating a yak’s horn placed on the ground and it was said that inside the horn were relics of Atisha–bones and some cloth from his robes. During his solitary practice he maintained strict silence. At one time the three omniscient Kadampa lamas happened upon him. All that he did was raise his hand in salute then disappeared without speaking a word. He truly lived his word, meditating all the time as a total recluse. It is related in the annals of the great Tibetan masters that this Lama Drag Chödrugpa was reborn as the great Milarepa. This makes sense as we know that Milarepa was the champion of all recluses. No other had his stamina and energy for solitary retreat in the mountains.
The eight worldly hopes and fears
- To feel happy when you find some mundane worldly reward
- To feel unhappy when you don’t find such rewards
- To feel happy when praised
- To feel unhappy when criticized
- To feel happy when you have mental and physical well-being
- To feel unhappy when you don’t feel mentally or physically well
- To feel happy when hearing pleasant things
- To feel unhappy and agitated when hearing unpleasant things.
Milarepa said, “I left my home and sought the solitude of the mountains but even there the eight worldly winds followed me. When I came to choose a cave I looked for one which was warm, dry and sheltered. The eight worldly winds were still blowing in my mind.”
The Victorious Kelsang Gyatso, the Seventh Dalai Lama, said, “Although I direct my body, speech and mind to the practice of virtue, the practice is polluted by the ugly owls of the eight worldly dharmas. Although I call what I do ‘dharma’, it is nothing but a means of pampering myself in a mundane way. When I see this a sickening feeling arises.” The Seventh Dalai Lama felt that although his whole life was dedicated to practising dharma his mind was still contaminated by desire, attachment and aversion, driven by the eight worldly hopes and fears. In essence, he spoke of his practice as nothing short of spiritual materialism, merely providing for his own mundane comfort and needs.
According to Jamgön Lama Tsong Khapa, the eight worldly hopes and fears can be divided into three types–white, black and striped. He tells us that these eight will follow us even if we abandon the crowd and go to remote mountain caves. If a recluse, meditating in the distant mountains, has the thought, “Perhaps the people in the town are thinking of me as a great meditator,” then at once his mind has become muddled by the worldly winds.
According to Bakri Dorje Chang, when a monk applies himself with great energy in the morning to studying texts and thinks, “Perhaps I will become a geshe of great renown and even be elected Abbot,” the reading of scriptures that he is doing will not be classed as a pure practice. On the other hand if a monk thinks, “I will read this scripture in order to understand the essence of the practice, to serve the teachings themselves and be able to benefit all sentient beings,” this is a pure practice.
A pure practice is not contaminated by the eight worldly dharmas. We must do our best in this regard although it is very difficult.
Ignorance, the misconception that all things have true or inherent existence, once spoke out: “I have influenced everyone–the great geshes teaching from their thrones, the high lamas with canopies above their heads. There is hardly a person who I have not blessed with the misconception of true existence of things.” This is a passage from the writings of Panchen Losang Chökyi Gyältsän where he presents a beautiful dialogue between the personified Ignorance and Wisdom.
Ignorance continues: “Although there are many who don’t want me, there are few except the Arhats of the lesser vehicle, Bodhisattvas on the eighth level and above, and beings who are fully enlightened, who don’t hold me in their hearts. For you, Wisdom, to grow in the minds of sentient beings requires a supreme effort from their side. But for me it is easy–I just spontaneously arise. Sentient beings know me much better. Even the lamas sitting below golden canopies know me well.”
Wisdom answers: “You many say this but your days are numbered. One day I will evict you from the minds of all beings. You have tricked beings into thinking in a deluded way– misconceiving things as existing truly from their own side. Because your influence is based on something false you will never be able to strengthen and defend your position but will effectively be challenged by the power of truth. The truth is on my side. The teachings of the Buddha are the evidence which will give me final victory.”
This morning please meditate on selfless existence–how things do not exist independently from their own side. The word ‘selfless’ does not mean that the self or person is non- existent. It refers to a self which exists conventionally but not as an inherently existent self, an independent entity from its own side. Independent ‘self-existence’ is not a reality. Let us contemplate on this meaning.
Turning the Wheel of the Dharma: Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s Last Formal Teaching
Given in the morning of Thursday, 2 February 1995, this was Gen Rinpoche’s last teaching in the Gompa. Gen Rinpoche himself decided to teach that morning and because the teaching was unscheduled the only people present were four of the Sangha who happened to be there at the time. There was a strong sense, however, that Gen Rinpoche was addressing everyone. Though by this time Gen Rinpoche’s body was very weak, his mind was as sharp as ever and his message as direct. The teaching was orally translated by Ven. Sönam Tenzin. (c) Copyright Dhargyey Buddhist Centre.
I have said many times that there is no difference between the speech of the Protector Nagarjuna, and the speech of the Buddha.
Nagarjuna says in one verse that of all the kinds of wealth, the wealth of contentment is the best. Even if you have no material wealth you are wealthy when you have contentment. With contentment you have the absolute, perfect, supreme wealth. So what these lines say is extremely important.
What does contentment mean? Contentment comes with being satisfied with what one has. It means that whatever one has, one thinks, “This is enough, this is sufficient for me.” One doesn’t feel that one has to accumulate many things, or have things of extremely good quality. If one has contentment one doesn’t have those kinds of grasping feeling.
In general we should think about how extremely fortunate we are. Even though we do not have a lot of jewels decorating our heads and bodies as nagas do, we have a precious human rebirth which has the eight leisures and ten good-fortunes. Because we have these eight leisures and ten fortunes we have the opportunity to practise dharma. In this we are more fortunate than nagas who, though they have jewels, do not have the eight leisures and ten fortunes, so cannot practise dharma properly. Thus we are extremely fortunate — much more fortunate than most beings. Because of the kindness of our teachers and the three jewels, we have obtained a precious human rebirth and so we can practise well.
It is also said of nagas that the more jewels they have attached to their heads, the more suffering they have in their bodies due to carrying those jewels. And of course they also have the suffering of losing their jewels or having them stolen. This shows us that those sorts of jewels are of no use.
The Teacher of Gods and Men declared that being satisfied
Was the greatest of all riches. Remain
Satisfied always. One knowing satisfaction is
Truly wealthy, even without material possessions.
Gentle Sir! Those having few desires
Lack the misery of those with many possessions.
However many the heads of the foremost nagas,
Just so is the misery obtained from them.
Nagarjuna, Friendly Letter
Though we, as ordained practitioners, do not have those sorts of jewels, we do have the precious eight leisure-jewels and ten freedom-jewels, so we are extremely rich in the necessities for practising dharma. We should remember how fortunate we are, and even as we are walking around we should collect manis etc, and do as much practice as we can. We will never have better conditions than these to practice dharma: these are the best possible conditions. Even celestial beings do not have conditions as good as ours, because they do not have teachers to teach them dharma. They do not have the sort of circumstances which are available to us.
So the essence of that first verse about contentment is that if one has contentment then even if one does not have worldly wealth one has absolute or supreme wealth. Contentment is a really wonderful thing in that even if one has just a little bit of money one thinks, “This is wonderful, I’ve got this money!” But without contentment it doesn’t matter how much money one has — whether one has $100 or $1,000 or $100,000 one always wants more; one is always dissatisfied with what one has.
That is Nagarjuna’s teaching. We should listen well to Nagarjuna’s teaching because it is really no different from the Buddha’s. I have taught you the entire Friendly Letter, and I want you to remember it well. It is a very great teaching, so you should never allow yourself to forget it. It is also very beautiful to listen to and pleasant to read — especially the verse that says if you have contentment you have absolute wealth. Those lines are lovely to listen to, especially in Tibetan*. All the verses are like that — beautiful to listen to.
If, when having found leisure such as this,
I do not attune myself to what is wholesome,
There could be no greater deception
And there could be no greater folly.
If the arising of a Tathagata,
Faith, the attainment of a human body
And my being fit to cultivate virtue are scarce,
When will they be won again?
Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.
Shantideva said that if one has a precious human rebirth and does not take the virtuous steps forward, there is nothing more shameful than that. There is nothing more wasteful than not engaging in virtue while one has a precious human rebirth.
We should take Milarepa as our example. He had no jewels — in fact he didn’t even have any tsampa to eat — yet because he had a complete, precious human rebirth and used it wisely, he was able to attain enlightenment in that one lifetime. But nagas, who have jewels all over their heads and sometimes all over their bodies as well, do not have a precious human rebirth so they cannot give meaning to their life as an animal, and they cannot generate a human rebirth. They probably cannot even generate an animal rebirth — they have nothing but bodily suffering from all those jewels.
Having a precious human rebirth is not something that happens all the time, but just this once. So, since you have the possibility for great happiness, thinking in the correct way take the essence of your precious human rebirth. If you just put it off until tomorrow or the day after, you will end up empty-handed, not having collected any merit.
It is incredibly hard to meet with a human rebirth that has dharma, so don’t waste it. Try as hard as you can to practise. There may be many billions of people in the world, but the number of them who meet with Buddhist teachings is very small. You might think that it is easy and commonplace to meet with Buddhist teachings, but it is not.
We can look into our own minds to see whether we will get a precious human rebirth in the next life. If we find we are only partially keeping our vows and commitments there is not much hope for us. Only a crazy person would say that someone who keeps their vows and commitments poorly will have the chance of a human rebirth. On the other hand, if we keep our vows and commitments carefully, as carefully as we would protect our most valuable possession or our own life, then we have a chance.
It would be very strange to think that we could get a precious human rebirth in the next life while wasting this life not practising properly and not keeping our vows carefully. It would be the same as a farmer who sowed any old grass seed in the spring, and in autumn expected to have a harvest of edible grain.
As soon as you have heard teachings you should immediately apply them to your practice. This is excellent advice.
*nor nam kün gyi nang nä chok she pa
rab chok leg pa lha mäi tön päi sung
kun tu chog she tsö chig chok kyen na
nor mi dog kyang yang dag jor pa lag
Open Letter to Gen Rinpoche’s Students
An Open Letter to Gen Rinpoche’s Students Everywhere
Commemorating the passing of on 11 August 1995 of Our Supreme Spiritual Friend and Peerless Teacher, The Most Venerable Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey.
For all of us here in Dunedin, the passing of our dear Gen Rinpoche has been a very sad time. We feel his loss deeply, like children newly orphaned. Yet, in ways beyond the capacity of ordinary parents, he continues to care for us though his body is gone.
Each Sunday morning we listen to a tape of his teachings, and each week since his passing there has been something there to comfort us. Yet these are not special tapes chosen for the occasion, they are just part of a sequence we have been following for months. It is an aspect of Gen Rinpoche’s true Buddha activity that his teachings of the past can spontaneously help us now. As the weeks go by, we see more and more the full extent of his greatness.
For years, Gen Rinpoche prepared us for the time of his passing. First in teachings about impermanence and death, and then in the decline of his own body, he made us aware that no human body can escape death. Through his kindness, during his last years he demonstrated to us the reality of illness and old age. At the same time, he showed us that it is possible to remain tranquil, accepting, loving and compassionate in the face of constant and debilitating physical suffering. Through the beauty of his being he showed us the living Dharma.
Because many of Gen Rinpoche’s oldest students were not able to be here in Dunedin during the last months of his life or at his passing, I will try to give an idea of what this extraordinary time was like.
As most people know, Gen Rinpoche had had diabetes for more than twenty years. As frequently happens with diabetes, eventually his organs began to fail. Although in 1992 he began to take a new Tibetan medicine which reduced and finally eliminated the immediate symptoms of diabetes, it was too late to reverse or even halt the deterioration that was already taking place.
In 1993 his eyesight failed, and though surgery produced a brief improvement, he was soon almost completely blind. At that time he was teaching Lamrim Chenmo and Nagarjuna’s Friendly Letter, and instead of abandoning his classes since he could no longer read the texts, he continued to teach, with Losang reading the texts line by line, and Gen Rinpoche teaching as clearly and profoundly as before. Thinking back on it now, we realize how difficult that must have been, and how kind Gen Rinpoche was to us at that time.
By the beginning of 1994 he was becoming more and more frail and we urged him to retire. He agreed to a partial retirement but continued to teach on Sunday mornings whenever he could, though at times he was so weak that he had almost to be lifted onto the throne. It was clear to us how much he loved to teach his students — his wish to benefit us totally over-rode his own discomfort and weakness.
During that year we could see his health failing, and on a number of occasions he could easily have abandoned his body. But each time, he chose to stay with us. In this way, over long, painful months, he demonstrated to us the sufferings of old age, of illness and of total dependence, and he prepared us for his eventual passing.
During this time Gen Rinpoche was cared for twenty-four hours a day by one of his two western attendants, the New Zealand monk Ven. Sönam Tenzin. Sönam Tenzin says that he was continually amazed at how Gen Rinpoche’s focus remained on the welfare of others rather than on his own illness. Suffering from progressive kidney failure, which in turn affected his blood, his lungs and his heart, Gen Rinpoche needed a great deal of nursing, and at one time he asked Sönam Tenzin whether it would be easier if he went to a private hospital, rather than remaining at the Centre where he might be a burden on his attendants. Only another monk could fully appreciate the sacrifice involved in Gen Rinpoche’s suggesting that he be nursed by people who were not ordained. Sönam Tenzin found it deeply moving. Needless to say, Gen Rinpoche remained at the Centre, lovingly cared for by his attendants, by Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche who had come from India to be with him, and by his nephew Rinchen.
During the last months of his life, Gen Rinpoche, who had loved going for walks and picnics, who had love reading texts and talking with his students, was too ill to leave his rooms. Living in darkness since he was blind, unable to read or to talk much, and frequently in physical discomfort, Gen Rinpoche nevertheless remained mentally at ease and peaceful, without any of the frustration or despair that might have seemed normal for one in his situation. At this time Kushog.la and Rinchen spent many hours reading aloud to him, while Sönam Tenzin and one or another of his attendants and disciples, sat with him.
To the end of his life Gen Rinpoche was willing to receive visitors, though often his body was not strong enough for it. Even when he was just too ill for visitors, he would ask how people were and what was happening. Right up until his last communication, Gen Rinpoche’s thoughts were with his students and the people dear to them.
As was inevitable, eventually Gen Rinpoche’s body could no longer sustain life. His heart and breathing stopped, and he entered the death process in the afternoon of Friday 11 August 1995. He was seventy-four years old.
With the beginning of Gen Rinpoche’s passing, a quite extraordinary time began for all of us here in Dunedin. It now became clear, as never before, just how remarkable Gen Rinpoche was.
To give a sense of this, I would like to present some of the entries from a diary of those days. Though words cannot express how we felt at that time, and though I haven’t the wisdom to interpret the things that happened, I have been able to record most of what we did, and saw, and heard.
Friday 11 August 1995
This afternoon at 3.33pm, Gen Rinpoche began his journey to the next life. He was sitting in meditation, and when Kushog.la and Sönam Tenzin realized that he had begun the death process, they wrapped his chöga (golden monk’s robe) around him, placed a silk kata around his neck and, with his other attendants, began prayers. Later in the afternoon they phoned Mongolia, to inform His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
This evening we did Vajrayogini Self Initiation, Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche leading the chanting. At the end, we visited Gen Rinpoche to pay our respects and make prayers.
Saturday 12 August
At 9.30 this morning, we began a complete reading of the 8,000 Verse Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra, in Tibetan. Thubten taught us how to form a chain of readers as they do in the monasteries, so that every single page is read.
This afternoon we did Vajrayogini Self Initiation again. Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche has asked Ani Chödrön to lead the chanting from now on.
Sunday 13 August
9am Continued reading the Prajnaparamita. While we were reading, Geshe Doga arrive from Melbourne and Geshe Pal Tsering from Auckland.
10.30am. Instead of our usual Sunday morning meditation, we did Lama Chöpa, followed by the Samantabhadra and other prayers. The gompa was packed — more than fifty of Gen Rinpoche’s disciples and students were there. At the end, everyone was invited to visit Gen Rinpoche to make prayers and offerings.
This afternoon, we did Dorje Jigje Self Initiation. Soon after it began, a large and very vivid rainbow was seen arching above the Centre from the Otago Peninsular, in a clear blue sky.
This evening Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche decided that we would be able to hold a funerary fire puja, and Dieter offered his land at Portobello for it.
Monday 14 August
First thing this morning Felicity and Ani Chödrön had an appointment with Dunedin City Council to ask for permission to hold a private cremation. What had seemed unlikely has proved possible, and we have permission.
At 9.30am we offered another Lama Chöpa and Samantabhadra Prayer, and at 11.00 finished reading the Prajnaparamita.
This afternoon was wondrously active: Geshe Doga, Geshe Pal Tsering and the Tibetans began a complete reading of The Sutra of Good Fortune; Roy Fraser and Sally Walter arrived from Mahamudra Centre and Roy was given responsibility for building the cremation stupa; Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche went out to Portobello to choose and bless the place where the stupa will be built; and the nuns began collecting the ingredients for the fire puja offerings.
This evening, Kushog.la helped Roy with stupa plans and materials, then explained how to make the funerary garments, headdress and crown.
Tuesday 15 August
This morning, Geshe Doga, Geshe Pal Tsering and the Tibetans continued reading The Sutra of Good Fortune while the rest of us began our various jobs. This afternoon Kushog.la went out to the site again while Roy and his team laid the base for the stupa. All the bricks and cement etc for the stupa had to be carried up the hill by hand. Everyone worked until sunset.
This evening we offered Lama Chöpa and tsog at the Centre. The altar shone with candles.
Wednesday 16 August
Reading of The Sutra of Good Fortune was concluded this morning, while Ani Chödrön drew the fire-puja mandala on a huge sheet of paper.
This afternoon, Roy and his team built the square base of the stupa, and Kushog.la placed the mandala in the base. Many people helped transport wood, ground-sheets, blankets, carpets and cushions etc. to the site. Back at the Centre, the nuns prepared the fire puja ingredients and made the tormas. Khejok Rinpoche and Alvin Chua arrived from Perth.
This evening, the Lhagon Rinpoches, Khejok Rinpoche and Sonam Tenzin prepared Gen Rinpoche’s holy body for the cremation. Khejok Rinpoche confirmed that Gen Rinpoche had been in meditation for three days before his consciousness left his body.
Dieter and several others stayed out at the stupa site all night. There was a high wind and torrential rain in the early hours of Thursday morning and they were able to secure the tents and protect the stupa and firewood from the rain.
Thursday 17 August
Journey to the Cremation Site. We gathered at the Centre before 8am. When all was ready, everyone except the monks left the house, and Gen Rinpoche, arrayed in headdress, crown and funerary garments, and seated in one of his favourite chairs, was carried to the front porch of the Centre. Khedrub.la, his senior attendant, circumambulated him carrying katas. Gen Rinpoche was carried past the Centre students who lined the path, to his van. We drove slowly to Portobello in procession.
Once at the site, Gen Rinpoche was carried ceremoniously up the hill, surrounded by the Rinpoches, Geshes and his attendants, with the rest of us in procession behind. As his holy body was lowered into the stupa, a skylark rose up into the air above it and hovered there singing.
When everything was arranged within the stupa the upper walls were quickly built, garlands and kata offerings placed on it, and a wreath laid on the very top. We circumambulated it several times.
Cremation puja. We had expected to start after lunch, but the weather looked changeable and Kushog.la urged haste. We began at 10.30am, the Sangha, and others who could read Tibetan, seated in rows in a large tent, its open front facing the stupa. Kushog Lhagön Rinpoche was Vajra Master, assisted by Khejok Rinpoche. Ani Chödrön led the chanting. Alvin Chua of Perth, a Buddhist who had never met Gen Rinpoche, lit the fire. Losang, Rinchen and Dieter assisted with the fire-puja offerings. The fire burnt magnificently, as befitted a great master of the practice of Dorje Jigje.
This evening, we offered a thanksgiving Lama Chöpa and tsog, marking the first week since Gen Rinpoche’s passing.
Friday 18 August
This morning, Air New Zealand staff at the airport phoned the Centre to report seeing a particularly clear and beautiful rainbow over Dunedin yesterday morning, the time of the cremation. We have also heard that at 11.30 yesterday morning, when the cremation puja was nearing its end, instruments at the marine research facility at Portobello, only a couple of kilometres away, registered the lowest air-pressure they had ever recorded, a matter of some interest to the scientists working there.
2pm Vajrayogini Self Initiation.
Saturday 19 August
Opening of the Cremation Stupa. We all went out to Portobello again at nine this morning to witness the collecting of the bones. Once the upper walls of the stupa had been taken down and the ashes removed, Kushog.la, Khechog Rinpoche and some of Gen Rinpoche’s oldest disciples removed the fragments of bone from the ashes, placing them in a white cloth. Gen Rinpoche’s vajra and bell survived the fire. The bell’s clapper has become detached (it must have been tied in with string), but Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche rang the bell several times with the vajra. Its sound is still very pure, clear and resonant.
Once we had recited the ritual for collecting bones, the fragments were placed in the vase, ceremoniously carried to the van, and taken in procession back to the Centre, where they were installed on the throne in the gompa, wrapped in Gen Rinpoche’s cloak. We made kata offerings and chanted prayers.
2pm Memorial Service for Gen Rinpoche.
Sunday 20 August
At dawn, Dieter went out to the cliffs at Taiaroa Head, and scattered the remaining ash into the sea.
10am Sunday Morning Class. We listened to a tape of Gen Rinpoche’s last teaching in the gompa. We were all in tears.
7.30pm Lama Chöpa and tsog
Each Thursday evening since Gen Rinpoche’s passing we have offered Lama Chöpa and Tsog, dedicated to his quick return. During it we chant a prayer just sent to us by Thubten Rinpoche, lamenting Gen Rinpoche’s passing and begging him to return quickly.
On Thursday 31 August, Gen Rinpoche’s attendants — Khedrup.la, Sönam Tenzin and Ani Chödrön — left for India to fulfil Gen Rinpoche’s wish that extensive offerings be made on his behalf at the three great monasteries — Sera, Ganden and Drepung — in South India, and in Mussourie and Dharamsala. Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche and Kushog Thubten Rinpoche met them in India, and the five are travelling together to carry out Gen Rinpoche’s wishes. There was a brief interruption to their plans when Khedrub.la fell ill in Singapore en route, but after ten days in hospital he was fit enough to continue, and we have just heard that they have almost completed their tasks in South India. There was a rainbow at the airport as they left Dunedin and perhaps it will prove auspicious, as the delay in Singapore means that they should be able to see His Holiness in Dharamsala. If they had arrived ten days earlier, His Holiness would still have been in America.
To all of us who were here during Gen Rinpoche’s last months and at the time of his death, his greatness was manifest not only in his own loving and compassionate behaviour, in the manner of his passing, and in the signs that followed it, but also in what we, his students, were able to achieve. In the week following his death, we who are very ordinary were able to achieve the extraordinary. Through the power of his teaching and example, and with the practical help of his disciple Lhagon Rinpoche, many people performed familiar and mundane tasks — concreting and bricklaying; carpentry and sewing; shopping and cooking; fetching and carrying; telephoning and arranging — that produced an amazing result: the offering of full Tibetan funerary rites arranged and carried out largely by westerners.
Through Gen Rinpoche’s blessings we were able to express our devotion to him, within our individual capacities, through our activity. Soon we will be blessed with the new teacher Gen Rinpoche has chosen for us — Khushog Thubten Rinpoche, one of his oldest disciples. And if we are truly fortunate, Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche will accept our invitation to return to Dunedin to work on a biography of Gen Rinpoche, and to build a stupa.
We pray that we can all continue to work together with the single-minded, open-hearted devotion that our dear Gen Rinpoche instilled in us. If we can, who knows what we will achieve?
Ven. Sönam Chökyi
First and foremost, to Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche. Without his knowledge and practical guidance, and his compassionate support, we would not have been able to accord Gen Rinpoche the ceremonial rites due to a Lama of his status.
To Khejok Rinpoche and Alvin Chua, who came from Perth to assist with the cremation ritual.
To Geshe Doga, Geshe Pal Tsering, and the members of the Tibetan community, who made it possible for us to complete the auspicious reading of both the 8,000 Verse Prajnaparamita Sutra and The Sutra of Good Fortune, and to Thubten Gendun who arranged the readings.
To Dieter, without whose generosity in offering his land at Portobello the cremation could not have taken place.
To Roy and his tireless team of builders and builders’ labourers, who not only built the cremation stupa but also carried the building materials up to the site.
To Ani Chödrön, for drawing the mandala, and for many hours as chantleader during tsogs, self-initiations, and the cremation rituals.
To the nuns and their helpers, who collected and prepared the fire puja offerings, and made the ritual garments.
To all the people who offered wood, puja ingredients, food, lights and flowers, and made donations.
To the many people who shopped, made garlands, helped fetch and carry, set up beforehand and dismantled afterwards.
To Cathi, Sallie and their helpers, who arranged the Memorial Service.
To Ani Kunzang, who bought and set up tsog after tsog after tsog, all of them magnificent.
To Ani Dechen, who arranged ever-expanding lunches for the ever-increasing number of visitors.
And to the entire Centre community, from Dunedin and elsewhere, for your helpfulness, generosity and harmonious, loving energy.
Last, but certainly not least, heartfelt thanks to Gen Rinpoche’s attendants — to Ven. Khedrub.la who cared for Gen Rinpoche for more than forty years; to Ven. Sönam Tenzin who nursed Gen Rinpoche with such devotion in his last years; and to Ven. Ani Sönam Chödrön who spent many hours finding and buying the myriad things that made Gen Rinpoche’s last months more comfortable. May you complete your tasks in India successfully, and return to us safely.
Tribute to Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
by Sally Walter in Mahamudra Centre newsletter, end 1995
Gen Rinpoche’s first visit took place in 1983, even before the Centre moved to Its present property, and before Gen Rinpoche had moved to NZ. We hired a house, strangely enough, directly opposite where the Centre is now, and hosted a weekend teaching there. From memory, Gen Rinpoche stayed with us for about a week in all. He was accompanied by his devoted attendant Kedrup, Felicity and Thubten Gendun and Cathi Graham, all of whom now reside in Dunedin.
We had organised for the brother of a local farmer to fly Gen Rinpoche and party in to the paddock airstrip at Waikawau Bay. Leon had his own small six seater plane and always took his little dog along with him wherever he flew. At that time he had recently had an operation and had a colostomy bag attached to his leg. The others In the party told me later they had serious doubts about the flight: coming In to land by the sea they could see absolutely nothing that resembled an airstrip. Together with Leon’s medical condition, plus the dog flying and plus at one point the pilot’s door opening and Leon reaching out to shut it in mid flight made it pretty hair raising!
My memories of that visit were of Gen Rinpoche and party and Roy, myself and our small children, sitting around the table after dinner at night. Roy and I soon realised that if we asked Dharma Questions, Gen Rinpoche would sit talking for a long time, but if the subject dealt with mundane worldly matters, he would quickly return to his room and his prayers. Gen Rinpoche loved outings -going for walks or driving in the car, picnics etc. He would raise his hand towards any animals we passed on these outings, murmuring blessings for them.
Both Roy and I clearly remember one evening sitting In Gen Rinpoche’s room during that visit, and receiving an invaluable teaching. He said that all the effort and work that was put into Mahamudra Centre would be worth it, even If just one person received benefit from it. He advised us not to measure the success of the Centre in numbers. Always during difficult times over the years, I have remembered Gen Rinpoche’s words from that night.
I also remember during that visit standing on the verandah one day looking out towards what was Novis’ property across the road, thinking what a barren and stark property It was and feeling no attraction to it at all. Little realising that some years later, it would become Mahamudra Centre! And never dreaming it could become the beautiful park-like environment that it is now.
Gen Rinpoche visited the present property for the first time in October 1986 when he came to officiate at the fire puja held at the end of the one year Vajrasattva retreat we did to help clear hindrances to Lama Yeshe’s rebirth. Prior to the puja itself, he gave some instructions on the practice. Early on the morning of the fire puja day, when preparing the site, Losang and Roy heard a loud discussion going on nearby, but couldn’t see anyone around. When they checked with Gen Rinpoche, he said it was spirits discussing whether or not they would interfere in the ritual. At the end of the puja Gen Rinpoche commented that during the puja the sky had been full of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Gen Rinpoche always felt like a very dear father to the Centre. He seemed to keep a very watchful and caring eye on us and in fact during one of his first visits to the Centre told Roy and I that Lama Zopa Rinpoche had asked him to help take care of the centres in Australia and New Zealand as it was too much for Rinpoche to do on his own since Lama had passed away. Gen Rinpoche said he was happy to do this. Many times when we made monetary offerings to him on behalf of the Centre, he would return the envelope back into our hands and tell us to use it for the Centre.
Especially in the early days of Mahamudra Centre, when it relied heavily on the energy Roy and I put in, I found the encouragement Gen Rinpoche gave us vitally important. In sitting down to write this, I have a beautiful visualisation of Gen Rinpoche in my mind -he is sitting looking at us as he used to do, so kindly, always acknowledging the work we did in building up the Centre and giving us encouragement to continue.
Tribute to Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
by Roy Fraser “Reflections on a guru/disciple relationship”
I last saw Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey at this year’s Tibetan New Year, in March, at his centre in Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand. Though frail of body Gen Rinpoche was still alert mentally, and for the benefit of his students he attended Guru Puja on the full moon day.
Monday July 31, celebration of the day, six weeks after his enlightenment, that Shakyamuni Buddha, first turned the Wheel of Dharma, teaching the Four Noble Truths. At our centre, Mahamudra, at the far end of the North Island, we’d just completed eight Nyung-nays. It was also the fifteenth anniversary of my taking refuge with Gen Rinpoche in Dharamsala, and as was my custom I wrote to him, sending offerings and expressing appreciation; and I wrote again a few days later requesting relics for a small stupa we are erecting.
Friday August 11: A little r & r – a low key dance at the local hall. Just before I left, a friend rang with the shocking news of Ashley Walker’s accidental death in Hawaii. Ashley, a resident of Vajrapani Institute in California had been at my first course years ago at Lawudo, where Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s cave is in the Solu Khumbu region of the Nepalese Himalayas. Afterwards, we had gone on a trek together, during which he first met Shasta, his wife.
After arranging to do a puja for Ashley next day, I headed out to the dance. At about midnight I was leaning against the back wall watching the show when Layla walked up to me. “This might be a bit hard,” she said. “Gen Rinpoche passed away this afternoon.” Suddenly the show stopped. In a daze I walked the short distance home, then collapsed in a sobbing heap. At last I had a realization – I realized what it meant to cry my heart out. All the warmth had left my body and I was stuck in fetal position trying to hold on to something that had gone.
The next two days were a haze. At the Guru Puja, which was now for Gen Rinpoche as well as Ashley, I was strong in feeling but unable to mouth words totally drained and empty, my heart ripped out.
I first got involved with the Dharma in 1980. As a complete novice Buddhist wishing to study Zen, I somehow ended up at Lawudo doing a Chenrezig initiation and a Nyung-nay fasting retreat with Lama Zopa Rinpoche. After a couple of days of teachings, everyone was talking about the initiation. I had no idea what this meant or implied but somehow I’d developed faith in Lama Zopa and wanted in. But one of the prerequisites was that one should have taken refuge in the Triple Gem. What’s that? Out of his great kindness and with skilful means Rinpoche allowed me to participate on condition that I take formal refuge at the first possible opportunity.
I went to the initiation and did the retreat, but I had absolutely no idea what was going on: when everyone else stood up I did, when they prostrated I did, when they sat I did, when they did manis I did. I was like a well trained performing animal with my mind mostly in Kathmandu. When I left though, I had the determination to fulfill my commitment to take formal refuge.
Several months later, after wandering around India and Ladakh, I ended up in Dharamsala where I heard about the teachings of Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. I nervously went along and there first set eyes on Gen Rinpoche. I also met up with John Wright, whom I had first met at Kopan Monastery, near Kathmandu, on my way to Lawudo. We shared a room, and John gave me my first introduction to Tibetan Buddhism answering my questions: “What’s a puja?” and offering advice: “You should get a mala.” “A what?”
I explained my need to take refuge and he advised me to request Gen Rinpoche, advice for which I will be eternally grateful. Gen Rinpoche accepted my request and said to come to his room two days later, the celebration of Buddha’s first turning of the wheel.
Many people took precepts with Gen Rinpoche in the early morning of that day. Just after lunch I was escorted to his rooms. His attendant Khedrup was in the kitchen cleaning up and Gen Rinpoche had guests, but he called us in to his room anyway. After making prostrations and an offering (thanks again to John’s advice), I explained my story to Gen Rinpoche. There followed a serious exchange with the other two Tibetans in the room, which was not translated but which I imagined was about these hopeless Westerners doing things around the wrong way.
Gen Rinpoche agreed to my request. During the ceremony he asked me to repeat what he was saying. I had several tries before he was at all satisfied with my words by which time I was very embarrassed and flustered. After giving me a refuge name and a small commitment, Gen Rinpoche asked me my Western name. “Roy Fraser,” he repeated – but it sounded nothing like Roy Fraser which caused general mirth, and so I left on a lighter note.
In 1983 during Gen Rinpoche’s world tour some of us in New Zealand hosted a three-day course at what was then the seed of the present Mahamudra Centre. My wife Sally and I were living in an old boat shed, and we rented a big country house for the course.
Later, by some stroke of unbelievable good fortune, Gen Rinpoche came to live in New Zealand. We bought the current Mahamudra Centre mid 1985 and immediately launched into a one-year Vajrasattva retreat after the passing away of Lama Yeshe. At the end of that it was Gen Rinpoche who guided us through the fire puja; he also gave teachings. He told us that Lama Zopa Rinpoche had asked him to help by teaching and guiding Rinpoche’s New Zealand centres, because now that Lama was no longer there Rinpoche was so busy. Gen Rinpoche said he was very happy to do so, and since then has returned most years, giving teachings and offering advice like a benevolent father.
One year Gen Rinpoche gave extensive teachings on the Yamantaka long sadhana, and at another time he gave a commentary on the Yamantaka self-initiation. There was no doubt that one was hearing teachings from a master who had fully realized all aspects of these practices.
Gen Rinpoche last visited Mahamudra Centre in 1992 after the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to New Zealand. Since then he had been taking on the aspect of aging, and we no longer had the merit to receive his Holy Speech.
Sunday August 13: Two days after hearing of Gen Rinpoche’s passing away, Cathi Graham from the Dunedin centre rang to tell us that he was still meditating in the clear light. Knowing that I must be there, I immediately booked a seat on the first flight next morning.
Upon arrival at the centre on Monday even before the obligatory tea, Sonam Tenzin invited us to be with Gen Rinpoche. Into the familiar rooms we went and there he was on his bed in meditation posture, propped up with pillows: the Holy Body appearing dead but somehow still there. As a farmer I’m very familiar with death – I don’t need to feel for a heart beat to know if something’s dead; it has a certain look. Gen Rinpoche’s Holy Body had a look of death but strangely not dead like life in a dead body. I managed to conjure up a few heartfelt prayers and make prostrations.
Over tea with my vajra brothers and sisters I heard the frightening news that I was in charge of building Gen Rinpoche’s cremation stupa, to be ready Thursday morning – it was now Monday afternoon.
I had seen pictures of Lama Yeshe’s cremation, but apart from that had absolutely no idea what was involved, and nor it seemed did anyone else. I went with Lhagön Rinpoche, a close student of Gen Rinpoche, and a few others to the proposed site, a windswept hilltop on the Otago Peninsula with sea on both sides and vehicle access to within a couple of hundred yards. In the bitter wind and sleety rain we consecrated the site. We had two days to turn this into a cremation site – no materials, no tools, I didn’t even have work clothes. I work best under pressure, but this?
So with some Tibetan measurements elbow to finger tip; four finger widths, an arm’s span – a fax from Thubten Donyo the Gyuto monk in charge of rituals at Melbourne’s Tara Institute, and a picture of Lama’s cremation at Vajrapani, I came up with a drawing before going to bed that night of what was to be built and how. And I managed to round up some tools and a change of clothes.
Tuesday August 15: A group of us met that morning at Paul and Kaari’s restaurant Ruby in the Dust to agree on tasks. We each went off in different directions to round up materials and people, arranging to be at the site at one o’clock, the plan being to get all materials on site and the foundation slab poured by dark. And it happened!
I arrived at 12.30 – a barren hilltop, no water, couldn’t even drive to it. But by dark the slab was poured and everything was in place: bricks, water, sand, builders’ mix literally tons of material had all be lugged up the hill. A superhuman effort carried out in good humour and harmony: I think that Gen Rinpoche would have been very pleased with the way his students worked to make the final offering.
Some time that afternoon, according to Geshe Doga (a student of Gen Rinpoche and the resident lame at Tara Institute in Melbourne) signs indicated that Gen Rinpoche had finished his clear light meditation and the consciousness had left the Holy Body.
Wednesday August 16: Now it was confirmed: tomorrow was the day for the cremation, so we had one day to build the structure. We worked all day. The weather forecast was not good: high winds and rain – we even constructed a large wind break fence – but somehow the bad weather never got to us, always just on the horizon. By dark I was satisfied the stupa would be ready for the Holy Body by nine in the morning.
Thursday August 17: I arrived before the first peep of light, and indeed by the time the sun had risen it was ready. Just enough time for a clean up before a yellow van appeared, and coming up the hill the knot of Sangha carrying the Holy Body sitting upright in a hardbacked chair. Once placed inside the base of the stupa, we continued to build the upper part to enclose it – with some urgency as once again rain seemed imminent. But as soon as the fire was lit, the clouds directly above opened – not haphazardly but in a square like a door or window.
Sixty people were in attendance. Lhagön Rinpoche presided over the Yamantaka fire puja, assisted by Kechog Rinpoche from Sydney. With Geshe Doga were Geshe Pal Tsering from Dorje Chang Institute in Auckland, thirteen monks and nuns from Dunedin and lay people from throughout New Zealand and some from Australia.
As the offerings began, three white birds came in from the east, circumambulated the stupa and flew off to the west. Geshe Doga later said that they were manifestations of dakinis. When the puja was finished and the fire had died down we were able to view Gen Rinpoche’s last teaching on impermanence. The Holy Body had been placed facing east but we could see that the backbone was now pointing directly west; and the Holy Skull had ended up right beside the west door of the stupa base. All pretty moving stuff.
I have no experience or knowledge about divination of signs, but I would like to think the flight of the dakinis, the Holy Backbone and the Holy Skull, all indicate the possibility of Gen Rinpoche once again returning to the southern continent to help Westerners. Or perhaps they indicate that Gen Rinpoche had ascended to the pure realm, hand in hand with the Queen of Kacho. Or maybe both.
Now that the physical manifestation of the guru has gone, there’s still a big void, a hollow feeling, and many regrets about the times I let my guru down in my laziness to practice. But it’s not too late – as long as I have this human body.
After fifteen years as a close disciple of a fully realized master, what have I learnt? At one point during my time as chairperson of the Trust for the Visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to New Zealand in 1992 things were pretty tough, lots of disharmony. I thought “I don’t need all this,” and wrote to Gen Rinpoche saying I wanted to resign. Gen Rinpoche wrote a very stern reply asking if I thought that following the guru’s wishes was supposed to be easy. In this way Gen Rinpoche taught me enthusiastic perseverance.
On another occasion I asked if Gen Rinpoche had any special advice for me in this role that I felt so hopelessly unqualified to do. The reply was to keep harmony – everything else would happen of its own accord. In this way Gen Rinpoche taught me the importance of harmony among vajra brothers and sisters. Enthusiastic perseverance and harmony: a great lesson for us in the FPMT.
There is very little in my Dharma practice that I feel good about. But I have great pride in being able to say I took sincere refuge with and was a close disciple of one of the great Holy Beings of our time, Gen Rinpoche, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey.
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