Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Atisha's timeless teachings
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche often quoted Atisha, the great master of the Kadam tradition, and here are some of these precious pieces of advice, from Rainbow Painting:
[picture of Atisha that "looked like him"]
Now I would like to explain three pieces of advice given by Atisha, called the Three Vajras. For a very, very, very long time, we have been roaming throughout samsaric existence from one life to the next. We have died and been reborn and died again, almost endlessly. It is as if we are moving through a huge ocean. The Buddha said, “Samsaric existence is like an endless ocean of sorrow.” Notice he did not say it was an ocean of bliss and happiness: samsara is always called the ‘ocean of suffering,’ never the ‘ocean of bliss’.
If we acknowledge this fact and have faith in it, if we truly desire to be free from this suffering, who can make us free? It’s not the ruler of the country we inhabit, nor our father or mother, our friends, our servants, our fame, or our wealth — none of this can free us from deluded samsaric existence. Only the spiritual endeavors we personally engage in can do so. Once we understand this, we should not let ourselves be dissuaded or falter from that path. So the first advice from Atisha is “Place before you the unshakable vajra of no dissuasion.”
To place before you the vajra of no dissuasion means: do not let anyone — no matter who they are, not even your spiritual teacher — discourage you from practicing the Dharma. A true master who wants you to be free will never say, “Do not pursue the Dharma.” So, the very first step on the spiritual path is to form the unshakable attitude, “I will let no one and nothing dissuade me from practicing the Dharma.” If your teacher tells you, “Do not follow your spiritual inclination,” you have probably made a mistake in choosing that guru.
Similarly, do not let anyone bribe or threaten you to make you not engage in spirituality. Someone may say, “I will offer you half the wealth of this world if you promise not to practice the Dharma any more. Just give up spirituality, and I furnish the money.” We should not let this kind of inducement tempt us. On the other hand, someone might threaten you, pointing a gun at your chest and say, “I will pull the trigger unless you promise to abandon all religious endeavors!” With your mouth, you should of course say, “Yes, I will give it up,” but from inside, from the core of your heart, you most definitely should not agree.
There is a less dramatic and more immediately practical application of this point, which is the reason I bring this up. We often hear the saying, ‘appearances are seductive, and mind is fickle’. Beguiling appearances means that when we see beautiful forms, hear pleasant sounds, smell sweet fragrances, eat delicious food, and feel soft textures touching our body, our mind is immediately attracted. These pleasant objects capture our attention and hold it. On the other hand, when we encounter what is unpleasant — ugly forms, harsh sounds, foul odors, disgusting tastes and rough textures —we feel repelled, maybe even aggressive. Dualistic mind is fundamentally unstable in this respect. The type of attention that is easily captivated or turned off is inherently unsteady. When this normal, unstable and fickle state of mind meets with an enticing phenomenon, it gets carried away. To avoid being constantly carried away, we need to make a firm, unshakable resolve. This is the first of the three points: lord Atisha tells us to make a firm decision, to “place before you the vajra of no dissuasion.”
The second of the Three Vajras is, “Place behind you the vajra of no shame.” When we first take up Dharma practice, we feel a strong wish to be free. We want to renounce further involvement in samsaric states through spirituality. Yet there is a common saying in Tibet: “The new meditator gives away gold, while the old meditator hoards his worn-out shoe soles.” In other words, in the beginning we have the feeling that nothing in this world really matters; we can easily give it all away, thinking, “I am not attached to anything!” Then slowly, two or three years later, we start to become jaded and numb. Even useless old shoe soles take on a new importance. Perhaps we think, “These can be cut up and used as tethers to tie the yaks together.” We start holding on to things, planing all sorts of later uses for them.
To place the vajra of no shame behind you concerns as well the impression we make on ourselves and other people. For example, when people know that an individual has stepped onto the spiritual path, there is an accompanying responsibility. If later on he or she turns back and gives it up, that action destroys the pure perception in others and may even ruin the Dharma for them. Thus, it is better to begin slowly and progress gradually on the path than to start out brilliantly and later become jaded and insensitive.
We should be like a mountain deer who has caught its foot in a trap. When it manages to yank its foot loose it will one-pointedly dart off to an unpeopled place. It is best that we adopt this kind of attitude. Then, in this very body and lifetime, we can abandon all attachment to our homeland and personal links. Living in unknown places, we can be like a child of the mountains. In this way, both ourselves and others will benefit. Others will see that the teachings work, and will gain the assurance that practice makes it possible to leave behind samsara in this very life and attain some accomplishment. Therefore, it is important to make up our mind at the outset, placing behind ourselves the vajra of no shame. Then later on we will not feel any regret for what we have done.
The third vajra is “Keep company with the vajra of pure wisdom.” Here, the purity of wisdom referred to is that of original wakefulness. This is our buddha nature, the enlightened essence, also called rangjung yeshe, self-existing wakefulness. We should first recognize this, decide upon it and gain confidence in our ability to liberate all thought states. After recognizing, we train in the strength of that recognition, until finally we attain stability. Making the decision to do so is the third vajra — “Keep company with the vajra of pure wisdom.” The ‘vajra of pure wisdom’ is the self-existing wakefulness that is always with us because it is our nature. To form the resolve, “I will recognize my own nature as it is!” is the last of the Three Vajras.
There is another series of Atisha’s sayings called the ‘Four Aims’. The first is “Aim your mind at the Dharma.” That means your final aim should be directed at what is true and meaningful rather than at mundane attainment. When we direct our aim toward the Dharma, we can attain liberation and enlightenment; but if we aim at mundane achievements, there is no way in the world we can reach liberation or enlightenment.
Atisha also said, “Aim your Dharma practice at simple living,” not great wealth. It is easier to pursue the teachings if we are simple practitioners. If we have accumulated great wealth before we begin to practice the Dharma, we feel we have to maintain a certain standard of living. It requires incredible effort to increase our wealth, to guard our assets, to make sure they are not depleted. There is much worry and involvement in that; so, it’s best to aim your practice at living simply.
The third aim is “Aim at simple living for your entire life,” not just for a short while. Do not think, “All right, I will practice Dharma as a simple practitioner for a little while and then later on I will make a break-through and become rich and important.” Do not think this way. Instead, aim at remaining a simple practitioner for your entire life, until the time of death.
Finally, Atisha said, “Aim your death at solitude.” This means decide to die alone and friendless in a retreat hermitage or unpeopled place, without being surrounded by attendants and companions. These were the ‘Four Aims’.
Atisha also told us to “keep a low seat,” meaning a low profile. Don’t strive to be high and important. Wear simple clothing, not fancy expensive garments; wear whatever you come by. Moreover, he said, “Let food, clothing and reputation take the defeat.” For example, when a dispute is settled, one party wins while another loses. Let food, clothing and reputation ‘lose the case’. In other words, do not let your mind become preoccupied with food, clothing, fame and importance.
Atisha moreover said, “Be your own teacher.” Be your own guide. Do not remain in a situation where you must always take orders from others. Live in a way that allows you to rely on yourself. If you can live like this, you have the possibility of being a pure practitioner.
The great master Atisha himself lived by these principles, and achieved great accomplishment. We should try our best to apply as much as we can of his advice.