May bodhicitta, precious and sublime, arise where it has not yet come to be. Where it has arisen may it never fail, but grow and flourish more and more.
Unbroken lineages of wisdom traditions are rare in these times, and Kongtrul Rinpoche descends from a pure lineage of the Dzogpa Chenpo Longchen Nyingtik tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
We have two main study and practice centers in America: Phuntsok Choling in Colorado and Pema Osel in Vermont. Rinpoche teaches the core MSB programs at these two centers. In addition, MSB has several city centers or groups around the world where people gather for group meditation and study, and to listen to the LINK teachings together.
Browse to any of the calendars to find out more about the teaching schedules of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Dungse Jampal Norbu, or Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel. View the upcoming events at Phuntsok Choling, Pema Osel, or find out who is giving the next LINK talk.
MSB is a part of the Longchen Nyingtik and Khyen-Kong-Chok-Sum lineages. (Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, and Terton Chokgyur Lingpa, collectively known as Khyen-Kong-Chok-Sum, were the heart of the Rimé, or nonsectarian, movement, which did so much to preserve and harmonize all schools of Tibetan Buddhism in the nineteenth century.)
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The starting point for transforming our minds is to view ourselves, in a disciplined and conscious way, as equal to others. Then we gradually shift our focus from me to we, and from we to they. We may as well work to make this transformation now, consciously, instead of waiting until we’re older or ill, and impermanence forces us to let go. With this discipline, we aim to shed the overwhelming presence of me and mine, and to increase our love and care for others. But we must be cautious not to become neurotic about it, allowing ourselves to be squeezed dry by our loved ones, only to resent them later for leaving us alone in our apartment or old-age home. This transformation can give us a tangible sense of freedom, sustaining us in peace, joy, and freedom. Then however we end up, even alone in our apartment or an old-age home, we won’t be lonely and resentful.
Whatever your karma presents, you will have learned to greet it as a perfect situation, tailored to your particular needs. It’s most likely you won’t end up alone because your bodhisattva activity will have positive results in this lifetime. But even if you do find yourself alone, you can recognize your aloneness as a karmic purification that needs to take place. This will protect you from feelings of isolation that arise out of regarding impermanence and the suffering of old age as mysterious inexorable forces pushing you into a corner. Training in this bodhisattva method creates a deep sense of resolve and satisfaction as we’re faced with all the stress of modern times.
So, the first step on the bodhisattva path is seeing ourselves and others as equal. Then we can transform our mind and our world based on that foundation.
The second step is exchanging ourself and others. This is only possible when we’ve trained first in equalizing self and other. There are four categories of exchange. The first one is the exchange of care. Second is the exchange of position: putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and someone else in your shoes. This includes the whole process of going through another person’s emotions and playing out their entire dynamic, as described in the eighth chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva. The third is exchanging happiness for suffering, or tonglen. The fourth is exchanging merit, offering your merit and taking on the negativity of others.
To start with, if we can’t exchange care, then the other exchanges will be as painful as dental work without anesthesia. To exchange care, we start by recognizing that the way we’ve habitually acted in the past hasn’t served our well-being. For countless lifetimes, we’ve cared for ourselves and worked for our own happiness. Yet, we have not achieved long-lasting happiness or freedom from suffering. But the buddhas and bodhisattvas, through caring for and serving others, have obtained enduring bliss and freedom. We have to acknowledge this contrast as fact, not merely religious belief. We know our own personal history, how we’ve created intense suffering for ourself through self-centeredness. And we’re also aware of those who care for and serve others, how they have become happier and freer. There are many examples in our own lives; we don’t have to think of extremes like Hitler and Buddha. With people we know, we can see how their character and mindset affects their lives. There’s nothing particularly religious about this, nothing to be taken on faith. If we investigate a little, the results will be very consistent. We have to accept these results as proof.
This analytic process gives us a basis of wisdom: caring for ourselves has not served us, whereas caring for others has worked well for the buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as for people we know. Even if it’s strange at first to exchange our care, we see the value of depriving our ego in this way. Any suffering of others that we can take upon ourselves becomes a medicine to pacify and reduce our own attachment to the self. Increasing our care for others and offering them happiness, joy, and merit, promotes our own buddha nature, so the qualities of that nature arise more prominently within us. Our own happiness depends on reduced ego-clinging and attachment to the self, so when we diminish these through the exchange practice, we immediately notice the positive effects on our mind.
Exchange not only brings freedom and joy in the present, it purifies past negative deeds. When karmic seeds ripen in your life, beyond your control, this practice gives you a viewpoint for relating to them and bringing adverse circumstances onto the path. Normally, people have to grin and bear such circumstances, which can shred them with despair and suffering. But with exchange practice, you can take these circumstances onto the path, purify the past seeds, and hold a vision of how to relate to future adversity. No matter how positive the present condition of your life is, thanks to your karma, you never know what the next phase is going to be. In recognizing this, a bodhisattva grows in courage, confidence, and an ability to relate to the world without fear.
Tonglen is a powerful practice to advance the bodhisattva’s progress. By reducing self-clinging, the source of all suffering, tonglen reduces our suffering to a minimum. It helps equip the bodhisattva to deal with any negative karma seeds sown in the past that are ripening in the present by turning that karma into a process of purification. Through the courage and confidence gained by taking adverse circumstances onto the path, the bodhisattva is not afraid of whatever negative karma may arise, even in relation to the processes of birth, old age, sickness, and death. Death is no longer seen as a tragic moment, ignored until it happens. The bodhisattva is equipped ahead of time. By pacifying ego-clinging and generating love, caring, and kindness, one’s buddha nature and its qualities shine through.
How does all of this relate to our own lives and situations in modern times? As a father or a mother, you naturally care for your child. To reach the same level of caring that a mother has for her child, you would have to reach the bodhisattva levels. If a child is sick, its mother genuinely feels, “If only I could be sick in his place, so that he would feel better!” If you do tonglen with that kind of deep feeling, the practice can reduce the overwhelming presence of me and mine, and give rise to buddha nature and its qualities. This naturally deep caring is due to the karmic bond between parents and children. Seeds sown in the past have manifested as this close relationship. But along with that deep caring, you also develop ego attachments to your children and fear for their safety. This occurs due to your own attachment to the self, and seeing the children as yours. It would be best if you could appreciate the karmic bond and see how it provides you with these strong, deep feelings, yet at the same time see your child as a separate individual who wishes to be happy and longs to be free from suffering. Rather than seeing the child as an extension of yourself, relate to him or her as an individual sentient being who has come into your life because of karma.
Human relationships are based on karma, and exchange is needed for these relationships to work. Our day-to-day exchanges can become the basis for the bodhisattva’s path if we approach them in the right manner and let them become as deep as a mother’s exchange with her children. If we recognize that karma is the foundation of any relationship, we can focus on exchanging, rather than simply taking what we want.
You can relate to everyone close to you in this way. As much as possible, do this with your parents and your spouse. Take into yourself what you don’t want, and then offer yourself to others. Do this based on your karmic connection as well as your naturally arising love and care. Opportunities for tonglen are always available, and you can always practice it. It will reduce your self-centeredness and promote your own buddha nature. If you can view your day-to-day situations in this way, the dynamics and stress of your relationships will decrease dramatically. Soon, there will hardly be any suffering.
All we need is this exchange practice. To gain confidence in the bodhisattva’s path we don’t have to become a world-famous bodhisattva like Mahatma Gandhi. The exchange practice is already present to some extent in our lives through our close karmic relationships. If we practice with a pure positive intention and make a conscious choice to be a bodhisattva, this will bring an end to so many samsaric dynamics. Early on we can establish enlightened relationships as a bodhisattva-in-training, and these connections will grow and multiply as we become enlightened. Our capacity to reach out will increase, as it did for Buddha Shakyamuni and for the bodhisattvas Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara.
The intention in your mind influences everything. Whether you help one person or a million people, it is the mind’s intention and comprehensive vision that determine the size of the merit. If you act with integrity, then helping just one person or helping a million people are no different. Helping one person while holding a pure intention might be better than helping a million. But it is necessary to hold the motivation to attain enlightenment throughout the exchange practice, knowing that your personal enlightenment is expressly for the benefit of all sentient beings. We get excited about the size, the numbers, and the glory of doing grand deeds. But if somebody with a negative, or self-serving intention, helps a million people, there will be unwanted side effects. And helping a million people with a self-centered intention will do nothing to purify the self-centered tendency. On the other hand, helping just one person, while holding a genuinely pure intention to benefit others, will generate more merit, without any negative side effects.
Exchange practice is what makes any relationship in the world work successfully, countries working with one another, the rich and the poor working together. Since karma is present for the rich to be rich and for the poor to be poor, first-world countries and third-world countries will have great difficulties and misunderstandings with each other if there is no exchange. Human beings and the environment will harm each other without exchange. Self-centeredness and self-indulgence put all relationships under stress and strain. If we look at all the world’s problems in geopolitics, economics, environmental issues, family structures, or in your relationships with family and friends the cause is lack of exchange. None of samsara’s problems could exist in the presence of an exchange based on respect, caring, kindness, compassion, and generosity.
Though we live in a vast world, we should work to enhance the smaller world within our own orbit through practicing exchange. Understanding exchange is closely related to understanding interdependence. If one thing falls apart here, it affects something over there. Carbon produced in America causes global warming across the whole planet. But even more so than such outer situations, it’s important to be aware of the effects of internal interdependence, and to practice exchange based on respect and seeing all beings as equal. We human beings should not think of our animal brethren as lesser beings. We should not take our positive karmic situation as humans to be a license for behaving superiorly to others. Knowing that we are no different from others, we should appreciate all that touches our lives. Rather than withdrawing into self-centeredness, instead extend respect, care, love, compassion, and generosity to everyone. If you can accomplish this with your close relationships, if you can teach it to your children, and talk about it with others in a rational manner, such a practice will produce a positive effect on the world.
One hundred bodhisattvas practicing exchange will have a far-reaching positive effect. The effect of one thousand will be even more far-reaching, and one hundred thousand even more. That’s how the world has to turn upright, through this collective grassroots effort of individuals who become more conscious and disciplined, choosing to live differently. Otherwise the world will spiral ever further downward toward eventual self-destruction.
Ultimately, exchange practice leads to the final stage: caring for others more than for yourself. When you practice equality of self and others, you already have one foot in the door of exchanging self and others. When you practice exchange, you have one foot in the door of caring for others more than yourself. When you grow as a bodhisattva, you expand in this very capacity to care for others more than for yourself. And when you become enlightened, everything you accomplish is for others. That is the final stage.
Becoming A Bodhisattva In Modern Times
Talk 2: Mahayana Seminar 2009
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