“Meditate extensively on internal and external interdependence, leave all things, possessions, relatives and busyness behind. Go to an isolated place. At that time, unless you think that nothing but Dharma will help and develop the attitude that nothing else is worth doing, the Dharma will never go along with Dharma. One does not know when death will come. You have no assurances about tomorrow and even less about next month.” — Je Gampopa on the Four Dharmas
On the fifth day of the teaching on the four Dharmas of Gampopa, HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa started to speak about the first of the four Dharmas, using a short text by Gampopa. The first Dharma is the line ‘may Dharma go along with Dharma’ (chos chos su ‘gro ba) and so the teachings began with an extended discussion of the first lines ‘Namo Guru’ ; what is the meaning of Guru (in Tibetan ‘lama’), as well as what makes someone a qualified lama (particularly in Vajrayana). The Karmapa spoke about why the guru is important, particularly in secret mantra, but also advised students not to follow a lama who does not have the requisite qualities [for more on the necessary qualities of a lama, see this teaching by Jetsun Taranatha on the minimum essentials]. Karmapa then went on to a detailed discussion of what real Dharma is compared with ‘pretend’ Dharma, the latter being anything that is motivated by the worldly concerns for this life, such as fame, wealth, reputation, pleasure and power. Even though something may look like Dharma from the outside, it does not make it authentic Dharma if it is mixed with worldly concerns and motivations.
Reciting the words of Gampopa (and other supporting texts) the Karmapa then spoke about how the Dharma texts continually remind us of the importance of thinking about death and impermanence and our insignificance in the universe, yet at the same time recalling the immense benefit and preciousness of a human life.
Here is an edited transcript and review of the teaching based on the original Tibetan and English translation by Karma David Chophel. May it be of benefit!
The meaning of the word ‘guru’ and ‘lama’
“Over the last four days, I have spoken about the background history and origin of the four dharmas. So today, am going to talk about the four dharmas themselves. The text by Gampopa begins with ‘Namo Guru’[i], it says:
“Namo Guru, Dharma goes alone with Dharma and so on”
So at the beginning, ‘Namo Guru’ is Sanskrit. In Tibetan, it means ‘lama la chag tshal’ (I prostrate/pay homage) to the guru. Generally, in Tibetan we say lama, and that means guru, but it was made up for the word guru. In Sanskrit, the word guru has many different meanings; one is being ‘heavy’ or ‘important’. That means heavy in qualities, or weighty. So, if we used the Tibetan for that is would be jiwa (it would not sound good, as that also means animal manure). Instead, they used the word ‘la na mepa’ (which means none higher than) unsurpassed etc. As for the meaning in the Vinaya, when women were first allowed to be monastics, one of the things they had to do was accept the eight heavy dharmas. There are many ways to take that or we could say, the eight unexcelled Dharmas. As soon as you become a full ordained nun (gelongma), you are not allowed to transgress those eight. So lama means one with ‘unsurpassed qualities’.
In Sanskrit, there is another meaning. If we take apart the two syllables, gu and ru. Gu means darkness and ru means light. So guru is the ‘one who illuminates the darkness in beings’ minds’, or who shines the light of prajna/insight. When we say guru or lama, it is not someone like a school teacher. A lama or guru is not someone who makes people look outside themselves but someone who gets people to look inside themselves; someone who gives direction for this human life and sets a good example. It is someone who due to their own experience and capabilities can make the latent prajna manifest and evident. Thus, the word guru is widely used in India and also in the Shakya and Newaris in Nepal too. But in Buddhism, guru is primarily used among Tibetan Buddhists. In Chinese traditions, there is secret mantra and also in Japan, but other than that, the word is not used often at all.
Another word is spiritual friend (gewai sheynyen) or ‘mitra’ in Sanskrit, which has a similar meaning. This word is widespread among all Buddhists and in terms of the meaning they are not that different. Guru is primarily used in the secret mantra tradition. So, why do we talk about a guru or spiritual friend, particularly when practicing Mahayana and Vajrayana? There are many reasons, but the one I would like to explain today, is in the Sublime Continuum (Gyu Lama), where there is a presentation of the three jewels. In this, it says because of the teacher, the teachings and the precepts there are the three vehicles, training and activities, and from this there are determined to be three refuges.
Mahayana practitioners seek the state of Buddhahood so they rely on a guru. Pratyeka Buddhas do not rely on a teacher but go it alone to the charnel grounds and such, which causes them to realize the cessation of the links of interdependence, so they depend on the jewel of Dharma. The Shravakas (Hearers) are mainly monastic, and they practice listening, contemplation, meditation. That primarily needs to be done with like-minded companions, which is the jewel of the sangha. Normally we say, the one who is teaching the path is the Buddha, the path is the Dharma and the companions on the path are the jewel of the sangha, this is what we normally say. Similarly, who is it that teaches what we should give up and adopt? It is our guru or spiritual friend. For those reasons in the Mahayana, and especially those in the secret mantra, we are primarily striving to achieve Buddhahood. Thus, the lama who actually teaches us how to do this is extremely important, especially in the secret mantra, which is like the short cut, or fast way, to get to Buddhahood. When you talk about a shortcut, what do we think? We think it was away get to the place going more quickly. Yet it is not just that, it’s different from the main road that most people follow. It is a path that only few people take. It’s also a path that is maybe not so easy or good, so maybe a lot more dangerous and risky. If you are going down a path you don’t know so well, then you need to take someone who knows the route/way well. In this way, the guru is the person who is showing you the short cut to Buddhahood. For that reason, in the secret mantra it means the one who teaches us the way to give up ordinary appearances and attachments and to transcend them. When practicing secret mantra they are someone who helps us get beyond the limits of our ordinary way of thinking and perceiving.
For example, when we think the Guru is a Buddha, normally, when we think about Buddha we think about someone who we can’t even touch with our hands. Someone who is far away, like a God. However, in secret mantra, we say the guru is a Buddha, so the Buddha is right in front of us, whom we can eat and drink with, that’s a Buddha. When we point it that way, that’s hard for us to get our minds around and a bit uncomfortable. However, if we are talking about secret mantra, it should be something that is hard to get your mind around and a bit uncomfortable! If everyone could get their minds around it, if they could understand it, then there would be no reason to teach the secret mantra secretly. You could teach it to everyone and everyone could understand it. There would be no reason to talk about whether someone would be receptive to it or not.
However, what needs to be understood here is not everyone who is given the title of ‘lama’ is a Buddha. You can give people all sorts of names, like animals, pigs, and you could call westerners ‘Tibetans’, and so on. The Tibetan name is not what is important, the basis and meaning is. Someone who knows secret mantra and tantra, knows that they talk about the many qualities of a qualified guru, so you need to examine and look if someone called a lama has those qualities. If they do have them, then you can follow them as a guru. If they do not, then you should not follow them. It says this time and time again.
Sometimes people don’t follow gurus who do have the necessary qualities but follow lamas who don’t have them. That goes against the secret mantra. So, when we follow a lama it should be someone who has them, if they do have the qualities then we must not disregard them, and should pay respect to them. If we do not do that, then it is a great loss for ourselves.
Let me give an example, if we were people in India, 2500 years ago when Buddha was on the earth, at that time how would we have seen the Buddha? We need to think about that. Would we see the Buddha like a guru or Buddha? Or would we not pay attention and just see him as an ordinary person? If we look at the actual situation, when the Buddha was here, there were people who took interest and people who did not like him. For that reason, the Buddha that people saw at the time, and the authentic gurus we see now, what’s the difference? If the Buddha has all the great qualities, but we can’t see that due to heavy mental afflictions and karma, maybe we wouldn’t see them much differently either.
The main thing is that in our minds we have a very set idea of what a guru should be. When we say a Buddha, we have an idea that a Buddha should be like this. We also wish they would be in a particular way and so on. That becomes like a character and a myth in our minds though. Therefore, if we actually met a Buddha, if they weren’t like what we thought they should be, we would abandon and give them up. It would be difficult to go to refuge to them. So even if we met an actual Buddha, there is a danger we wouldn’t see them that way. For that reason, when we see a Buddha we should think it is very difficult to find and priceless. If we actually saw them as a Buddha and served them, then we would be getting closer to Buddhahood.”
The first Dharma – may Dharma go along with Dharma
“What is the purpose or aim of teaching the four Dharmas? This is not talked about clearly in the root text, but in another work by Gampopa. He says in order to practice Dharma naturally, the Dharma must become the path and the path must clarify confusion. We must practice the real Dharma where words and meaning go together. What is that important point? The ‘Dharma needs to go along with Dharma’ and so on.
The order of the four Dharmas is often joined to the stages of the path of the individuals in the Kadampa tradition. The first Dharma is mainly for the lesser individual. Je Gomtsul said,’ first believing in karma and results is the correct worldly view. Meditate on karma, cause and effect. Turn away from negative actions, engage in virtue. The result is that of gods and humans.’ So that first Dharma is joined to the lesser type of person.
For the ‘Dharma to go along with Dharma’, there are three different points we need to know. First, in order to know if the Dharma has gone along with Dharma, we need to know the opposite of that. What is Dharma that does not go along with Dharma? We need to identify that. The second point is if the Dharma must go along with the Dharma, how does it do that? The third point is what is the measure/threshold that the Dharma has gone along with the Dharma?
So first, what is knowing the dharma has not gone along with dharma? Lho Lhaygapa took notes on Gampopa’s four Dharmas and he wrote: ‘it is not being interested in this life, and when Dharma merit and virtue are a pretence.’
Je Gomtsul says,’ isn’t all Dharma the Dharma?’ Why would the Dharma not become the Dharma? Not knowing this is ignorance, and there are two types. Delusion about karmic, cause and result or ignorance of conceptualization one only wants happiness for this life and only takes interest in the eight worldly dharmas. Due to that, one performs mainly the ten non-virtues. If that is so, they are negative actions. Even what seems to be the Dharma, such as listening, generosity, meditation and so on, is not Dharma, it is ‘pretend Dharma’.’ He explains it in this way.
Likewise, the Lord Phagmo Drupa said: ‘What is Dharma that does not go along with Dharma? It is taking interest only in this life and in the eight worldly concerns.’
Then, there is the direct disciple Jigten Sumgon who wrote a commentary on Gampopa’s four Dharmas called the ‘Horse Year Dharma talks’[ii], which means the talks he gave in the Year of the Horse, he says: ‘what is Dharma that has not gone with Dharma? When you do it for gain, respect or making yourself look great and good, then even apparently virtuous dharmas you do, will have the result of having a horrible, vicious and perverted ripening.’ There are many such descriptions.
In the Sakya tradition, it also says if you cling to this life you are not a practitioner. In brief, if we don’t know how to practice Dharma, or if we think we know the way, but and we aren’t able to give up happiness and fame in this lifetime. If the aim of our lifetime is not to achieve the state of liberation or Buddhahood but rather to be happy, well-known, wealthy or develop power and influence, and we are only thinking that level, that is not Dharma. Other people might think ‘oh he knows what he is doing, he is great, he is a well-known practitioner’, even though they are not. We also may think about ourselves, ‘oh I am practicing the Dharma’. Yet, you are deceiving yourself and others, and in the end when you almost are dying you think ‘oh I have done this’ and you can’t think of anything you have done for the Dharma, or practiced. That is the worst thing and that is Dharma that has not gone with Dharma. In summary, if we have an attitude that thinks about fame, pleasure, wealth and so on in this life, that is Dharma that does not go along with Dharma.
Secondly, if we want Dharma to go with Dharma how does that happen? There are two ways it can do this. One is meditating on death and impermanence and the other is talking about karma, cause and effect. The first, in terms of the actual text by Gampopa says:
‘One should meditate extensively on internal and external interdependence, leave all things, possessions, relatives and busyness behind. Go to an isolated place. At that time, unless you think that nothing but Dharma will help and develop the attitude that nothing else is worth doing, the Dharma will never go along with Dharma. With death you do not know when it will come. You have no assurances about tomorrow and even less about next month.’
To explain this in brief, in order for Dharma to go along with Dharma, you need to think about the external and internal worlds of all sentient beings and phenomena and at the time you die, you need to realize that you will have to leave all your possessions, relatives and loved ones and go it alone. At that time, whatever you think about will not help other than Dharma. So, when you have the attitude that nothing but Dharma will help and nothing else is worth doing; when you think about any worldly activity as being pointless and without benefit, then Dharma has gone to Dharma. Until you think like that, then the Dharma has not gone along with Dharma. With death and impermanence you do not know when it will happen. We don’t have the power to say I will live until this time next year. We can’t say that. This is something we really need to consider. That is a brief explanation of the words of the text.
The importance of contemplation on death and impermanence
“In terms of supporting citations for that text, I will give a few. If I gave citations from everything supporting it, there would be so much and I don’t see any need for that. There are afew that give the important points, one is from Pagmo Drupa: ‘By meditating on death and impermanence the mind turns away from this life and Dharma goes along with the Dharma.’ Alsom as I mentioned, there is the Horse Year Dharma talks it says: ‘what must you do to reverse the thoughts of this world? You must turn the mind away from this life and remember death and impermanence. Similarly, Je Tsongkahpa there are the Three Pricniple Points of the Path. By contemplating the leirues and endowments that are hard to find and the fleeting nature of your life, reverse your clinging to this life.
In brief, life is impermanent, and there is karma, cause and effect and the defects of samsara. When someone talks about this, it’s like an old person babbling. They hear it every year and so it’s like they don’t hear it anymore; like they have become hard of hearing. People say ‘oh it’s like that, yes that’s right’. However, it doesn’t move us or give us any feeling or inspiration. So, even though it is said again and again in the texts, we never really think about it. If we talk about it in terms of a contemporary way of thinking about it, that might be helpful. It’s important to speak in a way that fits with the current times. Like they say, ‘you need to speak human words to humans and donkey words to donkeys!’ We need to communicate in the colloquial speak.
So if you looked back in the human life, this life, there have been good times and bad times, the point it comes down to in the end, is that everything changes. Everything changes means becoming different than before. We can talk about that positively. Every day we have a new day and hour and moment, so we get new opportunities all the time. However, if we think about it negatively, many situations don’t turn out the way we planned or hoped. So, we get overwhelmed or surprised by it. In brief, there are so many changes in this life we almost die and that death is also change. As individuals, we also think its better to stay living. However, in this world there are 7.8 billion people. Then if none of those people died and continued having children, what would it be like? There would not be much food or clothing or much to do and they may have to resort to cannibalism or living on top of eath other. It would be horrific. There is a reason why people have to die. We haven’t experienced dying so we can’t conceive what it will be like when we die. None of us have experience of dying. When someone is close to us, we hear in the news that someone has died and we feel a little about what death is like. But other than that we have not experienced it.”
Are there future lives or not?
“Last year we have said goodbye to, and there is the epidemic of the Corona virus and thousands of people are dying daily because of it. We don’t think that will happen to us. There are many terrifying things about death, but the worst thing is we don’t know when we will die. If we are prepared to die and if we could predict accurately when we will die, perhaps we would not have so much worry and fear about death. Why? Because if you know when you will die, you can plan about what you will do and be prepared for it. The other thing is we won’t waste time, and we know that there is something to be done. So you prioritise and complete those activities first. So if you know that you will die tomorrow, there won’t be any regrets. It is actually the thing we should have the strongest interest in, but we don’t think to do that at all. We forget what is the most important thing to do and we don’t hurry to do it. Then, when we die, we think ‘I should have done that but I didn’t’, so we feel lots of regrets.
People feel uncomfortable when talking about death, people don’t like it. However, one thing we need to take some joy in, and take a broader view of, is that we have future lives. We have a never-ending supply of future lives. In terms of Buddhism, we take it for granted that there are future lives. However, if we actually let ourselves think about whether there are past and future lives, most of us have not really done that. Probably none of us have ever really thought about it. So for that reason, thinking about it is very important. If we say ‘oh the Buddha said that’ and leave it there, that is not enough. You need to think about it for yourself and use your own logic. It’s really important for us to think, are there future lives or not? If we read the texts by the great scholars, it does not give us the same feeling as thinking about it a lot ourselves.
In any case, it is important to think of our own lives and for ourselves. When we think about it, there are several different points, some proofs, or ways, to think about it. First, some might say there are no future lives, when you die you die, like a candle goes out. It’s finished. That’s one way. Thinking there is nothing at all. Just saying there are future lives does not give us conviction. We need to think from zero and then can develop confidence and faith. Having just some sort of assumption does not help.
The second way of thinking is that there are many different religions in the world, most religions say there will be a judgement day, so that when you die, it is not that your being ends, you go to the court of God and they decide if you are going to hell or heaven. God decides that and that determines your next life.
The third way is similar to the Buddhist way, there are future lives, maybe one, two or a thousand or limitless. So, the ancient philosophies and religions all consider what is the essence or meaning of life? That is the basic question they ask. From ancient times until today, most people in the East or West, most people don’t think they will completely cease. If your life is just one, then it’s meaningless and pointless. Why did you come for just one life? If you come back again and again there’s a reason, right? What’s the point or reason to continue being if there is only one life? So, we need to talk about the reason for all these philosophies and religions. We need to look at the actual things we see, and examine them.
There are scientists that do examine this and cannot definitively say that when people die their minds cease to exist. They have tried many methods to research this. There is not 100 % certainty that there are past and future lives either. In this lifetime, it’s possible to think about this. Why do we need to think about it? On a solitary, quiet, dark night we may think about it. Or on a morning, when there is a gentle, warm breeze we might think about this, and think consciousness will continue. These days, even scientists say that when people have heart attacks, those people can be revived after brain death. They examine what happens after that. All over the world, there are people who remember past lives, especially children. Many children have confirmable memories of previous lives.
If there is not just one but hundreds of lives, if we can decide this now, how will that change the way we do things in this life? It will have an effect. If you only make one movie, then the script and meaning will be done just for that one or two hours. Yet, if you are going to have many episodes then you need to have scripts for each of those. We need to think differently that plans for future lives, right? We need to direct our vision to longer term and far off, so that from a thousand lifetimes later, we can see what we did in this lifetime as being short and small and insignificant. Within the solar system, we are a small planet. Within our constellation, there is the whole universe, there are many galaxies, 20, 000 galaxies they can observe. How many stars are like our sun? That is hard to even count or fathom. This earth is not even like a grain of rice, it is even smaller than that. Humans on this earth are even less than that. So we need to think about this and have a much vaster way of thinking, not in such a narrow way. This lifetime is very short and tiny. At the same time, another thing we need to think about is that this life is a very short amount of time compared to future lives, but also that our life is also very precious indeed. The leisure and resources we have now are rare and difficult to get, which can inspire and motivate us. It’s like when we have to communicate with oxen, you cannot talk to them and so have to strike them with a stick. We are similar to oxen sometimes, we don’t listen and people can’t communicate with us about these things either.”
Transcript and article written and edited by Adele Tomlin, 2nd January 2021.
[i] This seems to be the text in the gsung ‘bum/_sgam po pa; W23444, pp. 387-388. shashin, delhi. 1976.
[ii] ‘jig rten mgon po. “tshogs chos rta lo mar grags pa dwags po chos bzhi’i ‘grel pa/.” In gsung ‘bum/_’jig rten mgon po. TBRC W23743. 7: 518 – 626. Delhi: Drikung Kagyu Ratna Shri Sungrab Nyamso Khang, 2001.