Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobten: How to find a spiritual practice

Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobten

Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobten

2 – Praise of dependent origination. Teaching by Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobten in Bodh Gaya, 13-17 December 1996.

Part 2 – How to find a spiritual practice

We all want things to go well. Nobody wants to face any problems in the future. And therefore we have to find a way to make things go well and to stop problems coming. When we say ‘want to go ‘going well’. Then there is another meaning too, ‘going well after you are dead’. Then there is ‘going well’ in the sense of lasting freedom, and even further than that is ‘going well’ in the sense of an Enlightened Being.

So one should have a real hope for oneself. Not just be satisfied with thinking that I hope it goes well until I die, but rather think I hope it will go well forever. If it went on with happiness like the happiness I sometimes now feel, or even a celestial kind of happiness, it would be happiness caught within change. Freedom or Nirvana is not caught within change. It’s a solid, undegenerating, lasting well being.

It’s true, you know, if we were free, if our experience was of an undegenerating, stable peace or well being, it would never change, it would never degenerate. But even that would not be a state from which we could fulfill all the needs of every living creature, a state of Enlightenment. In such a state, even beyond that freedom, one naturally fulfills as much as is possible all of the hopes and aspirations of every living being. In such a state, in a state of Enlightenment, is the knowledge of all of the talents that particular beings have, all of their interests and all of what motivates them, so that one can respond perfectly to all of their needs in a natural way.

People have different interests and from within a state of Enlightenment, the natural response is in terms of those beings interest. Some beings are interested in a small approach and some are interested in a great approach. One talks or comes forth from within the state of Enlightenment in accord with the interest of those beings to be trained. Even to one who’s spiritual life is now based on individual freedom, such a path is to be taught in accord with their interest, within the understanding that such a path will finally lead into a spiritual practice in which the needs of all others are foremost.

For those whose interest from the start is in the welfare of all, a great interest, a spiritual path is taught that leads immediately to the benefit of all. But even amongst such people who are of the Great Vehicle, who will carry in their practice limitless living beings, there are those of different interests. Those for whom spiritual practice is encoded in the Sutras are interested in Sutra, and those for whom spiritual practice is encoded in the Tantras are interested in Tantra. So again, even for those who are of the great vehicle, different teaching is set forth in accord with their interest.

The bottom line is the reason one is involving oneself in spiritual life. It’s for the needs of others. It’s in order to be able to fulfill others needs that one thinks, ‘I have to become Enlightened’. If one thinks ‘I am going to get Enlightened for myself’, there will never be any Enlightenment. In a word, one looks at and tries to attain Enlightenment motivated by the needs of all other living beings.

Having every other living being in mind one has to call up within oneself feelings of love for them and feelings of sorrow for them. What do we mean love? The thought, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if ever living being were happy? I should do something about that. I should try to make them happy’. That is talking about a feeling or emotion called love.

Then there’s the thought, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if every living creature out there wasn’t suffering the problems that they’re now suffering? I really must try to do something about all those sufferings that they have’. That’s talking about an emotion called compassion.

And what’s the so called ‘special thought’? It is this; ‘it is my concern that all living beings out there get all the happiness they are looking for and are are freed from any problems they are now facing. That has to do with me and my work’. That’s referring to the special thought or special concern.

Sure, I do wish indeed they were all free from the sufferings they have. I really do wish they were all happy. I know it has something to do with me. It’s my responsibility to do something about it. But look at me right now. What can I do? Honestly, look at me now, with all of my shortcomings, all of my lack of skill. Looking at oneself in that way, but still keeping that concern, one thinks of one’s own development, and thinks ‘I’m going to have to work on myself to change myself into an Enlightened Being, to develop every talent, to get rid of every shortcoming in myself’. And thus one has a thought, a ‘chitta’, I will be Enlightened, ‘bodhi’. One has a thought to be Enlightened, that is Bodhichitta, and that is how it comes.

You see how it all boils down to just not hurting others, trying to do something for others. You can sum the whole of it up like this. One has to try to do something to help other living beings, but if one can’t, one has to be sure that one doesn’t add to their problems. Even if one is of the Small Vehicle, still that Small Vehicle does not cause any problem to anybody else. And if one is of the Great Vehicle, it not just that one does not cause any problems to anybody, but indeed one now is also being of benefit to them too. You could say that is what a big or a little vehicle would be. A Little Vehicle would be this. ‘I don’t want to hurt anyone and I don’t want to cause anyone any problem’. And a Big Vehicle would be ‘It ‘s not only that I don’t want to cause anyone any problem, but I’ve got to do something to help them also’.

So it’s totally as one feels, what one feels drawn towards. If one feels ‘I just don’t want to harm, to hurt or cause anybody any problems and I am going to structure my practice in that way’, and one is motivated in one’s spiritual life by such as that, you would call yourself a Small Vehicle practitioner.Then if one thinks ‘I would actually try to do something for them, I would actually try to help them somehow’. Then one would have to motivate oneself in that fashion too, then you could call yourself a Great Vehicle practitioner.

One way or the other, this is how one defines oneself. Really, in order for one to be of the Great Vehicle, authentically Great Vehicle, not just in talk, one would have to have looked at oneself and then looked at ones future state of Enlightenment. From this state of Enlightenment one would be able to benefit living beings. And looking at that state of Enlightenment in which one would be, from the bottom of one’s heart authentically have this thought; ‘I must get that Enlightenment’. That thought, chitta, for that Enlightenment, bodhi, would be Bodhichitta.

If you have that thought of that Enlightenment you are an authentic Great Vehicle practitioner. In other words, it’s to meet the needs of living beings that one gets Enlightened. Because in that state you can do something for them. If you can help one person, it’s excellent, isn’t it? And if you can help ten, that’s really wonderful too. And if somehow one’s deeds can help a hundred, that’s even better. If every living being in the universe can benefit from what you do, that’s perfect isn’t it?

But such a state, Enlightenment, me? Yes, indeed anyone can become Enlightened. And why? Because it’s true that I have many shortcomings, but those shortcomings are not locked into me. I can get rid of them. My faults or my shortcomings are not permanent things, they are not set in concrete. They came about within me because of particular causes, because of particular conditions, herefore their nature is transitory. They are removable.

There is a way to get rid of my shortcomings. And it’s not just a theoretically way to get rid of them. There is a way which is understood, and it has been understood and articulated by an Enlightened Being. The methods to get rid of one’s shortcomings are to be found in the many teachings in the 100 and more books of the teachings of the Buddha. It is also a fact that these shortcomings I find myselfwith, not only are removable, but it’s also possible that I can wish to remove them. The psychology islike this. When I see my faults as faults, and I see them as causing me problems, I start to want to getrid of those faults I try to find a way to get rid of them. They’re totally removable aren’t they, so I start to get a little bit excited about the idea. ‘Yeah, I’m gonna get rid of those things that are causingme problems’. One starts asking oneself, what’s the way I would be rid of these faults?

Actually there is away to get rid of these faults, and that way is called the Dharma, or spiritualpractice. So one starts to get quite excited about doing spiritual practice. At that point, once one has that sort of excitement about things the emanation of an Enlightened One might appear before you, because for one with that sort of interest, Enlightenment manifests itself in order that a person can be taught. Since Enlightenment is defined relative to meeting the needs of living beings, thus you can have it manifesting in any sort of birthplace, in any sort of location, in any sort of way necessary. That which is necessary at times and places for those who are there to receive teachings which are beneficial to them in their quest.

Enlightenment, or Buddha is defined in this sense, that it never misses an opportunity to be of benefit where benefit can be given. Thus it’s never late in arriving, it never misses the time when a person is ready, it’s always right there. If antelopes or birds can be manifestations of Enlightenment to lead those who through such manifestations are to be led, it goes without saying that human beings can also function as manifestations of Enlightenment in order to lead those who are appropriate to be led.

In other words, why has not the Buddha come for me yet? Why am I still here without my manifestation of Enlightenment? It is because we’re not trying. So then one needs the psychology to really make one try. You need to think like this. ‘This form of life I’m in is caught within a stream of existance which goes back through life form after life form, and has no beginning. And in each of those forms of life in this stream without beginning, the problems I face in this life I have faced again and again. And the problems mount up to be so immense that it becomes almost unbearable to think about it. And since I’m caught within this stream and can’t get out, it’s going to flow on again, forever. And thus the amount of problems I have to face in the future is so immense that I cannot bear it’. And through thoughts such as these one begins to think, ‘I really got to find some sort of Dharma’.

That’s how one gets the amount of interest or wish. So some sort of contemplation of how a stream of existence or existences in which I am caught is a reality, is necessary. In other words that coming forth as I am now in this life is not a one off-thing, but rather it’s an ongoing reality. At the very least if one can have some thought that this might be true, and best of all if one can look into it and take it as a reality, that causes this drive or wish to engage in spiritual practice. As for my coming back in some form of life in the future, in order to have any belief, as it were, one would have to think that prior to this form of life that I’m now in, there was another form of life which is somehow connected to this one.

The point is that we have a physical aspect to us and a conscious aspect to us. There is no doubt that the physical part of us originates from the sperm and the ovum of the mother and father. Thought or mind or consciousness doesn’t originate from that. Consider the moment after conception. Then you have a living being of some sort living within the mother. It didn’t come from nowhere, something caused it. So if you have an awareness element there it is not uncaused, but needed a cause of the same sort of substance. Such substance can only be found in an earlier moment of awareness. You can only find such a moment of awareness in a prior life.

So you have a connection with a being in a prior form of life, and in between, a small intermediate time, with a being in there to. And you take this and apply it to any lifeform that one might have been in, or any life form at all. Any time that you have any form of life, always preceding it will have been another one and in between those two, a small period, which is intermediate.

You can also take this relative to one’s next life, and say that it will definitely come, because the life that I have now functions as the lifetime that will be previous to the next life. And in between this form of life that I now find myself in, and the future one whatever that might be, there will be a small period of time where I will also have awareness. If one thinks in this way, you can see that there will be no end to it. You’re locked into a pattern where every time one experiences a form of life, it’s going to cause one in front of it, a next one. And thus, any time I find myself in a form of life it means that I am caught and must have another one in the future.

All the life forms I have experienced before are gone. The experience of them is over. The only thing is that they can effect my behavior and what I experience in a future form of life. And also the process is not one in which I act as director. It’s a process which comes without my having any freedom, because the director of it is these cankers or these klesas, and the actions that I myself have already done.

If one can get out from within oneself, and can remove from within oneself these klesas or cankers, then they no longer operate as the director of the process, and one doesn’t come forth in different forms of life without any say in it. So in this situation we find ourselves experiencing forms of life where the director of the process is our afflicted emotions or these cankers.

If the cankers were gone from within ourselves, what would operate to cause life forms to come forth would be a feeling of compassion or a feeling of need to do something for others. One could come forth in some form of life having directed oneself to do so. In other words, high spiritual beings do indeed take rebirth, or do come forth in different life forms, but they don’t do so without freedom, or under the force of attachments or klesas. They come forth with the thought that by doing so, there is value and benefit.

One motive we should find in ourselves is this motive. I’ll be free if I don’t have within me these cankers, these klesas. I’ll be free in the sense that when these klesas are removed I will no longer come forth in one form of life after the other without any say in the matter, or without any freedom. So in terms of what is clouding ones inner world, the grosser clouds are so called klesavarana or afflicted obscurations. That category has to be removed in order for one to be personally free. But beyond that there’s still more clouds, the so called ‘clouds which obscure understanding’. Even those have to be gone to get to a state of Enlightenment.

That’s the way one thinks. I want to be free. In order to be free I have to get rid of these kankorous clouds or these klesas which are stuck in my mind. In order to get rid of them I have to have Dharma, I have to have a spiritual practice. And with that thought, one starts to enter into a spiritual practice. Apart from a spiritual practice or the Dharma there’s no way to get rid of these kankorous clouds, as it were, in one’s inner world.

It’s possible a person might think, ‘now, that’s a Buddhist idea, this thing about past and future lives, and it’s something that I personally don’t assent to. I’ve never seen a past or future life, not once, therefore they are not there’. That oneself has never seen does not stand as a good reason to believe that something is not there. For example, nobody can say they know everything. Nobody would stand up and say ‘I now know everything’. So it’s reasonable to accept that there are things which one does not know. Thus because one is not aware of, or does not know something, is not a reason to allow oneself to slip into the prejudice that ‘I now know it’s not’. In other words, unless one can say of oneself that one has plumbed the entirety of all knowables, some sort of humility in the face of what might possibly be is called for. But one might say it’s beyond that. The point is there is no knowledge system, or there is no one, that knows such things. There is no knowledge of such reality.

What one should simply know is that one does not believe it. Now, that’s OK. But one might also say, ‘you’re just talking in the sphere of beliefs’. So you have moved into an area where only belief applies when you are talking about such questions. These are areas of belief, not knowledge. In other words, existing or not existing are not issues here, it’s just whether you believe or don’t believe. That’s also not quite the way to come at it. Buddhas or Enlightened Beings tend to be defined as knowing past or future forms of life. In other words, an Enlightened Being would be defined as saying things from having known them. And thus for example that there are 14 reincarnations of the Dalai Lama, becomes a viable reality.

It’s the way things are. Why would an Enlightened Being wish to lie. What would be got from lying. Therefore it’s a description of how things are. Anyway, by and large, one can set up for oneself and believe in an existence through which one can find benefit. That’s also a way to come at these things. One just sets it up and believes it exists with the thought that through this belief there will be psychological benefit. And anyway, if one sets it up as not existing and at one’s death on finds it did, it would be sort of unpleasant.

In other words, better setting it up as existing and believe in it and if it doesn’t there’s no problem, than setting it up as not existing and find that it does exist and get the problem. In other words, you set it up as existing and sort of make a few preparations just in case and if it’s not there, no problem. But if it is, then you have made preparations, just in case. It’s like when you go to the airport, but you haven’t been to the travel agency, and you haven’t checked when the plane is going. You head out to the airport, it’s a real hassle. But if actually you had been to the travel agency there would be no problem.You know, you just hit the plane and off you go.

One makes preparations for one’s future form of life, one’s future vehicle. And there is no other place you can make your preparations except within one’s own spiritual practice in this life. Thus in the outline of the meditation in the gradual stages of the path, it says, ‘at the time you are dying, there is nothing apart from your spiritual practice which will function as a preparation’. Spiritual practice, yes. Not causing anybody any problem and trying to be of benefit to them. In fact, if one tries not to cause anybody else any problem and tries to help them, it will be very good for one in this life also. By having one’s eye on preparing for a possible future form, a vehicle that one might be travelling along in one’s future existence, one engages in a spiritual practice.

That spiritual practice in addition happens to make this life that I’m now in rather better. One simply becomes a better person by not causing problems to others and trying to do something for them. Having a great body or having great knowledge isn’t what makes a person a better person. You are said to be a good person when you don’t cause problems to others and you try to help them. They say a person has a very good heart when they try not to harm others and try to do something for them. When one sees somebody who is not trying to hurt others but trying to do something to help them, one says they have been born into a good life. That person can think ‘I’ve been born into a good life and my life is meaningful, I have a lucky life’.

They say that the person that really has an excellent spiritual practice, a real spiritual practice defined in this way, as they begin to die, feels as if they are a child going home. In other words there is no thought that my future is going to be an unpleasant one, as one begins do die. Confidence in one’s future, knowing that whatever form of life one might experience, it can only be a decent form of life. The person also feels that if they were to die today, it’s fine. No problems in terms of dying. And also one has this benefit too, that when one dies, whenever it might be, one thinks, ‘I’ve tried my best in the way that one should try’, so there is no feeling of regret about the way one has spent one’s life.

And along with this, life just becomes real pleasure, a great joy, a great place to be. In other words one structures one’s thoughts such that what’s happening in the future is of importance to one. To structure one’s thoughts like that is beneficial and that’s what one should try to do.

In the Sakya tradition they have a spiritual path which is set forth as ‘being separated from the four settlings or the four attachments’. So the first is if you are attached to this life or if you settle on this life, there is no spiritual practice. What this is trying to put across is that if one is dominated by the things one experiences in this lifetime and one’s horizons are totally limited by that, there is no room for spiritual thought. Similarly another tradition of Tibetan Buddhists, the Kadampas also say that if you want to know where spiritual practice starts, where the border is, psychologically speaking, it’s when the dominating concern with one’s experiences in this life loose importance, and things in a wider area begin to become important.

The second of those Sakya teachings on attachments is this. ‘No freedom if you are attached to the pleasures of this life’. So no experience, no matter how desirable will be of lasting benefit. In other words, it’s like a bad friend, a fair weather friend, it leaves you after a while. And the third of these Sakya teachings is if you believe in anything or if you apprehend anything, you still haven’t got a correct opinion. In other words, you can’t understand emptiness if you settle on anything as being truth. And the fourth one is if the thought remains to get just a little something for oneself, one has not got the thought of Enlightenment. That’s in the Sakya sect.

Now in the Gelugpa sect, you have exactly the same idea as this, being put forth under three headings. That a spiritual person should cultivate a feeling of sadness about the world. Should cultivate a correct opinion or understanding. And should also cultivate the thought of Enlightenment. Those three are the main terms in the Gelugpa school. They have exactly the same meaning as the four separations from attachments in the Sakya school.

It’s the same with the great yogi Milarepa. One of his songs said if you don’t think about what comes about by doing nasty things, and you don’t think what comes about from doing virtuous things, you’ll end up in a form of life which is totall suffering. So one should therefore always remain aware as one acts and check if what one is doing is virtue or non-virtue. And he also said that if we keep letting our minds settle down on something as true, we never ever stop deciding that those people are bad and these people are good. And to the extent that we do not cultivate an understanding of everything as lacking such concrete truth, but as illusory, we don’t cultivate an understanding of what reality is. Therefore we cannot get rid of the causes of our suffering. Milarepa also sang like that.

He also said that if one doesn’t remember all living beings within the thought that I personally havebenefitted greatly from them, one will never have the thought of Enlightenment. Milarepa means by this that if one doesn’t feel love and compassion for all living beings, one will never have the thought of Enlightenment. In a word then, right now we don’t find ourselves in a terrible form of life, therefore what we should be doing is making sure that we do what needs to be done to avoid taking such a form of life in the future. And we should try also to get the motivation to free ourselves, to find Nirvana. And we should also try to find within ourselves the motivation to become Enlightened for the sake of all living beings.

Without finding within oneself the wish not to suffer in another form of life, and without finding within oneself the thought that one wants to personally be free, there is no way to find the thought and the way to Enlightenment. These spiritual practices for the beings of the three levels apply to everybody. The spiritual practice of a great spiritual practitioner requires and includes within it the spiritual practice of the small or beginning spiritual practitioner. You cannot have a big spiritual practice without having included within it also little spiritual practices.