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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Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s commentary from the 2021-22 Ngondro Retreat, Talk 4 given on 12-29-21. Reposted from the 2022 Crucial Point.
WHEN DOES A HUMAN BIRTH BECOME TRULY PRECIOUS?
What is spoken of in the ngöndro as a precious human birth is not because we are human or smart. Regardless of how smart you are, this is not what we contemplate to be a precious human birth. More specifically, it is that we are human, and we possess this rare and very precious opportunity to embrace the Dharma in our own personal lives to reduce our suffering and the causes of suffering.
Everyone holds their lives as precious, sure. Not only humans, but animals also hold life as precious. But in the ngöndro teachings, only if you apply yourself to the teachings does your life really become a precious human birth. If you don’t apply yourself in that way, how could your life be precious? Nothing would result from this precious opportunity if one never engaged in doing anything about one’s own suffering and cause of suffering. Or, if you apply yourself but don’t see it through, your life won’t be precious either because the work went unfinished. Your work had just begun, and then you got distracted and left it unfinished, carrying on with various distractions. In my view, that is not a precious human life either.
Or, you may have applied yourself, and then when you reached a plateau or some kind of block or wall, you felt despondent and discouraged. You felt it would be pointless to try any longer, or you didn’t have the energy, the “oomph,” or the courage, or even a resourceful mindset to find the resources to get over that plateau, block, or wall. So, then you just let it go. That also doesn’t make this a precious human birth.
The precious human birth becomes truly precious when the work is done inside of you. It isn’t precious just because the opportunity is present in your life. Whatever favorable external or internal conditions you may personally possess, all must be put into use to do the work of really finding yourself to have changed—from the beginning of the path until the end. Outwardly, you may appear to be the same person with the same identity, the same features—maybe getting older—but internally, you recognize that you’re a different person altogether, especially in your relationship with your mind. Your mind is no longer foreign to you. You know where your mind is now and where it is in the end. If there were no improvement in the mind—whatever one might believe that one has been externally doing with the Dharma—internally, how could it be that this rare and supremely precious human life has worked out well for you if the “preciousness” mainly came from attachment to the self?
From hindsight, the responsibility for making your life a precious human birth lies in how far you’ve come in genuinely getting to know yourself better. As a result of having this become more profoundly clear to you, you know how to be with yourself and your own mind, with your thoughts and emotions. In the time you have with people or in your time alone—mostly when you’re by yourself—you know how to occupy yourself with deep mental activities that yield from within a profound sense of peace and awakened wisdom. Of course, before you entered the path, you had none. And when you started the path, you had none of this. You might have had a Master’s degree in science or psychology or whatever, but you didn’t have the kind of knowledge to work with your own mind. This is what makes the Dharma practitioner’s life a precious human birth.
So we cannot yet conclude that our lives are precious. This must be tested still. The work is not yet finished. In the end, a genuinely precious human birth means accomplishing töpa bor chok ma—once and for all letting this birth be our last birth in samsara.
WHEN WILL IMPERMANENCE AND DEATH PERSONALLY COME TO YOU?
Then, we become more aware of impermanence and feel the urgency, on a daily basis, to make our lives precious according to the Dharma. Each day, we strive to become more self-conscious about our wastefulness with this grand gift of the precious and supremely rare opportunity of really becoming one with the Dharma. This opportunity could be casually cast away, as if it were something that you would have forever, so you might feel no loss in having this day just slip away from your life.
What can protect us from this kind of casual manner of relating with one’s precious human life as a practitioner? Again, you must feel self-conscious about taking your life for granted—not just any life, but this precious human life. The more you feel how precious it is, the more you will not take this life for granted. The less you feel that preciousness inside your own heart, you will naturally, consequentially, take your life for granted. By taking your life for granted, you will waste your days like the ocean’s ripples, lapping, one after another, never ending, on meaningless shores.
When will impermanence and death personally come to you? Impermanence and death are everywhere if we open our eyes. But that fact won’t penetrate your rock-hard mentality that nothing will happen to you personally if you believe that you are somehow vajra-like, indestructible. You could work in the emergency room these days and see hundreds of people dying. But within yourself, you could be thinking, “Nothing’s going to happen to me for the next twenty, thirty, or forty years.” Perhaps this is the mindset of conventional people because they don’t know what to do with that information. They don’t know what to do with the possibility that if they were to actually be next, what would they do with that information, other than just fall into despair and depression about the end of life coming so soon? Maybe staying in that kind of vajra mode serves a purpose for them. But for the practitioner? For most, ignorance may be bliss, but for the practitioner, it is not. For most, denial may be a kind of self-protection, but for the practitioner it is not. If you use ignorance as bliss and denial as self-protection like ordinary people in the world, you will not progress on the path of Dharma.
Think about when impermanence and death will come to you personally. Is your death going to come this year? Is it going to come this month? Is it going to come this week? Is it going to come tomorrow? Is it going to come this afternoon? Or is it going to come right now, as if it were happening right now? What would you do if that were the case? How would you actually work with your state of mind? What kind of confidence, what kind of deep resolution would you need to free yourself from the various hundreds of attachments without being forced to let go? When a child is attached to the mother’s breast, feeling the warmth and security of the mother’s bosom and milk, and is then ripped away from the mother’s bosom, the child feels devastated and cries inconsolably. As we see, that’s what happens everywhere with impermanence and death, with people who are not prepared to let go of their own comfort zones and attachments and the various niches where they have stationed themselves to feel safe and secure.
To go out of this world in that way is not the extraordinary practitioner’s way of life. That’s the common way of life. Even animals do it. Sometimes animals actually do it much better. When our dog Tashi was sick and dying, it was refreshing to see that she was in the present moment most of the time. For human beings, that’s seldom the case. For practitioners to think consciously about impermanence and death in the initial stage—however painful it is—and to get over all of your attachments might be an overwhelming thought. Nonetheless, the practitioner works on it. This means working on each and every attachment that you feel swell up inside of you, attachments that you know will become a source of suffering when death forces you to depart from the objects you’re attached to.
Becoming free of attachments—without severing any positive relations that you have with those objects—allows you, when the time comes, to know that you are resolved. And whatever is still unresolved at the end of life, you become very willing to resolve because of the nature of the situation. But most practitioners who get on with their work to be resolved from early onward will find there’s nothing to be unresolved about. In other words, in the end they have realized that all their attachments and clinging come from within.
You may be generally making leaps and bounds of progress in your nature—for example, in your understanding of the truth of this dream-like quality of life—and are able to maintain positive relations with both supreme beings and sentient beings in profound, connected ways with one’s mind and heart. “Nothing,” as Patrul Rinpoche says, “is lost forever.” We all are connected; we all will be connected. For example, parents are most attached to their children. But the practitioner sees that, in the same way that a day is over and another day begins, when one lifetime ends, another lifetime begins.
So, it’s only the unprocessed attachments, the gross level of clinging that swells up inside you when you consider the object of your attachment—your children, your spouse, your friends, this world and its familiar surroundings, this body—these are what make us suffer in the end. When that is realized and processed, and we see that ultimately speaking nothing is lost, most practitioners who work on contemplating impermanence and death become resolved without any lingering sadness or feelings of loss or deep anxieties. Meanwhile, as a great master states in the Words of My Perfect Teacher, in the beginning, contemplations on impermanence and death allow you to enter into the Dharma. Such contemplations make you work harder to get to a place inside that is beyond suffering and the cause of suffering and to have the solid confidence that work in the Dharma is realized nowhere else but inside of you.
CONTEMPLATING SAMSARA LEADS US TO A TRUE SENSE OF PURPOSE IN LIFE
Then, think about samsara, what happens to anyone in samsara—how much suffering there is. If we can really open our eyes and our hearts to see the suffering in the world right now, in the human world alone, with the pandemic and famine and war and economic crises and all the brewing tensions between countries—these are affecting us. Even if it’s not personally affecting you, it’s badly affecting someone like you on the other side of the globe, like in Syria or Africa. Just because you’re comfortable, don’t think that samsara is comfortable. Just because you are in the present moment thinking nothing is wrong in your life, don’t think samsara is perfect. Samsara isn’t perfect. Samsara is full of misery.
And if you add the animal realms to this, in just one city, on a daily basis, how many domesticated animals are suffering? On one chicken farm, how many chickens are suffering? On one cattle ranch, how many cattle are suffering? It’s just unbelievable; it breaks your heart. If you add the sufferings of the the preta and hell realms, it truly breaks your heart. So, from the top to the bottom of samsara, in the three worlds, there is no true lasting bliss or peace, ever. As is said, how could there be peace and ease if you are in a den of poisonous snakes? Like that, as long as we are in samsara, there is no real peace and bliss outside of illusion.
When you contemplate the suffering of samsara, your mind grows big enough to think about all the mother sentient beings who are suffering—even if you are not suffering right now. Instead of seeking liberation only for yourself, you want to do something for them. If you can, you want to bring each and every one from out of the misery of samsara.
To aspire to this, you begin to have a true sense of purpose in life, which is not just to have a spiritual path and liberation for yourself, but to bring liberation and enlightenment for all living beings. The heart of compassion can only grow if you reflect upon the suffering of beings who are as sensitive as you are. Think of how much it hurts you when a tiny spark falls on your hand and starts to burn. Like that, all beings are also sensitive and deeply feel the suffering of samsara.
As Gyalsé Ngulchu Tokmé stated, “Thinking of all the mother sentient beings who are suffering in samsara and then thinking about just your own liberation seems very odd.” Even if it was liberation, what kind of liberation would that be? For those who have the bodhicitta disposition or the Mahayana disposition, liberation really comes from reflecting on the suffering of samsara. Most people want to avoid contemplating the suffering of samsara, to wonder and think longer and more deeply about every being’s suffering in every realm. But for those who want their hearts to grow and expand, who want the juice of compassion to flow in their heart, that is the most interesting contemplation there is.
The story of Asanga encapsulates the power of compassion. What he was unable to do for twelve years in solitary retreat, he accomplished in an instant of strong compassion, which purified his obscurations so he could meet Maitreya directly. Without being purified from whatever obscurations hide the world of Akanishtha, you cannot have the taste of being a successful Vajrayana practitioner. Asanga’s story is always a good reminder of how important it is to always have compassion in our hearts.
OBSERVE KARMA AS YOU PROTECT YOUR OWN EYES
Then, to be a spiritual practitioner, you need to observe karma as you do your own two eyes—how you protect your eyes from any danger of injury, like from snowstorms, dust storms, or sandstorms. Otherwise, you won’t be able to show the benefits to yourself or others or to make offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas.
These are the four thoughts that turn one’s mind toward the Dharma, and in hindsight they are the most important contemplations to build your depth of character and integrity as a practitioner. This solid foundation will allow you to reap the fruits of other practices down the road without any insecurities or second-guessing, and without any feelings of: “I’m not feeling so profoundly affected by this or that practice, by this or that retreat on the practices of so-called higher tantras. Did I miss something?”
If you have a solid foundation, you will reap solid fruits. If you just rush out and do what seems to intrigue your ego, without contemplating in depth these four thoughts, you could very well down the road, many years later, become quite despondent, as we see happen to many practitioners. You can blame the teacher, the lineage, the practice, the community, or whatever or whomever you like. But in the end, blaming won’t provide any compensation to restore you to yourself as enlightened. So, before getting to that point of blaming your own failure on all these outer things, build your foundation properly to be the practitioner that you aspire to be. Reap the fruit of that. So, I highly recommend that you do your ngöndro wholeheartedly, especially by engaging in deep contemplation on the four thoughts that turn one’s mind toward the Dharma.