Bardo Teachings: This Life

Please listen with the mind of bodhicitta, for the sake of bringing all beings to enlightenment. This mind has two aspects. First, one should have a mind to benefit all beings, through compassion and second, one should have wisdom so that one can achieve enlightenment so we can benefit all beings. This compassion should be based on understanding that all beings desire happiness, but by not recognizing the cause of happiness, or knowing how to cultivate it, or recognizing suffering and its cause, they are unable to bring about their own benefit. Although sentient beings desire happiness, they only accumulate the causes of suffering. So their aim and their actions are opposite to each other.

One reason why we should cultivate compassion is that we are all alike in desiring happiness. All beings have taken rebirth in samsara from time without beginning. They all have been born as our parents and other relatives. So we all are related from previous existences. These sentient beings exist throughout space and wherever they are, there are afflictions and negative actions, And wherever these are, there is suffering.

When we read the prayer “may all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness” we are cultivating loving kindness. And when we say “may they avoid suffering and the causes of suffering” we are cultivating compassion. But its not enough to cultivate these emotions. We should also seek a path to wisdom. As we are known as Insiders (Buddhists) we should transform our minds and seek the means to transform the mind. Without transforming our minds we cannot change our actions. Without changing our actions we cannot transform our karma and will continually take rebirth in samsara and suffer its pains. So we should understand that one’s well being results from cultivating its causes.

Shayamuni, who was omniscient and saw the results of actions, taught the Dharma so that we can transform our minds. Because of our ignorance, we grasp at an ego, believing in its existence. We designate objects as our possessions. From the thought of I arises the concept of others. Our selfishness gives rise to aversion and negative actions, which causes us to wander in samsara. So we need to transform our self cherishing mind into a mind that seeks to benefit others. This is primarily done by cultivating loving kindness and compassion. The practice of the four immeasurables: loving kindness, joy, compassion, and equanimity, are so named because they cultivate these emotions impartially to all of the infinite number of beings.

Not every intention to benefit others is bodhicitta. Bodhicitta has the aim to bring all beings to enlightenment. If one is able to transform one’s ordinary mind into the mind of enlightenment, we are on the path to liberate oneself and others from samsara. Any virtuous practices one performs become the cause of enlightenment. So everything depends upon one’s motivation and aspiration. So it is important to look inside and check one’s intentions. If one’s intention is pure, one’s actions will be pure. If they are impure, one’s actions will be impure. So one should cultivate alertness and mindfulness to check one’s motivation and correct it if it is faulty. When one listens to teachings, it is not enough to hear the words. One must also understand their meanings.

As the Center asked me to give teachings on bardo, I will give them. It’s not necessary to discuss each word of the text , so I will concentrate on the sense. In 1998 when I gave teachings on the wrathful and peaceful deities of the Yangzab, I gave teachings on The Mirror of Mindfulness. Khenmo asked me to repeat these teachings so I will teach them again. I received oral teachings on this text from Kalu Rinpoche. It was written by Tsele Natsok Rangdrol. He was the reincarnation of Gotsangpa, from the Karma Kagyu lineage.. Bardo means between two. There are six bardos, ordinary life, dreams, samadhi, death, reality, and between lives. This text condenses them into four. The first is the bardo of ordinary life. The second is the bardo of the time of death. The third is the luminous bardo of reality. The fourth is the bardo of karmic actions of rebirth.

The bardo of ordinary life refers from the time between birth and death. The perception of this life differs from person to person, depending on their pure or impure perceptions. To some persons living beings appear as pure beings, to others as impure. To a person of pure perception free from afflictions all appearances are pure. Every being appears as a deity and all sounds are mantras. When we view objects we have the mind of grasping. We label some as beautiful and others as ugly. But higher beings view the outer world as the mandala of deities and their inner being as the lord of this mandala. To higher beings all thoughts are the experience of dharmata. Ordinary beings give rise to conceptual thoughts and form attachments and aversions. But higher beings experience mind as the dharmakaya and thoughts and emotions as its expression.

All thoughts are nothing but the expression of the three bodies of the Buddha. Natural awareness, rigpa, is the embodiment of the dharmakaya because it is empty, yet luminous. Because its nature is luminous, it is also the sambhogakaya. Because its compassion is limitless, it is also the nirmanakaya. Thus the nature of mind or rigpa is the unity of the three kayas. The achievement of full enlightenment is actualizing the three kayas. All sentient beings have the seeds of Buddhahood. When these seeds are fully actualized one recognizes the three kayas as inseparable from natural awareness.

It is like the sun being obstructed by clouds. When they are cleared, the sun appears. Similarly, when our obscurations are cleared, Buddhahood appears. The nature of mind has existed from beginningless time and is not produced. But until it realized, it does not appear. Higher beings have realized the empty, luminous, and compassionate nature. But there is no difference in the nature when it is manifest or unmanifest. The experience of enlightenment has different names, but all names have the same meaning.

Besides higher beings, there are ordinary beings who experience phenomena depending on their karmic propensities from their past lives. Because of their ignorance they have a self grasping and self cherishing mind. They give rise to delusions and conflicting emotions, believing all objects truly exist, even though they are mere appearances. They perceive impermanent phenomena as permanent. Even though they know they are impermanent they are attached to them as if they were permanent. In their confusion, they mistake what is painful and suffering as joyful and pleasant. Because of this confusion and ego clinging, one distinguishes between friends and enemies and victory and defeat. One accumulates property and possessions and spends time in maintaining them and enjoying them. One indulges in the eight worldly activities, praise and blame, and so forth. In brief, one’s life is misspent in worldly activity. Most sentient beings are ignorant and there are only a few higher beings.

At night ordinary beings sleep without any aim. They are doubly deluded in their dreams. So the intermediate state of dreams in included in the bardo of ordinary life. When one goes to sleep one should make the aspiration to be able to engage in the yoga of luminosity and this will have some benefit. Likewise, before sleeping one can visualize a lotus in the center of one’s heart and one’s root guru in the form of the Buddha. As one falls asleep, the petals close. When one wakes up the lotus petals open and one feels joyful. This also generates merit. When we categorize the bardos as six, the dream bardo is counted separately. But here, where there are four bardos, it is classified as part of the bardo of ordinary life. Higher beings who have mastered the mind and its expressions, are enlightened. But ordinary beings who have not, take rebirth in different realms and suffer. So everything depends on whether you have understanding or not.

One should transform the bardo of ordinary life into the path of liberation by practicing the pith instructions. It has been taught that one can transform life into the path by hearing, contemplation, and meditation so that one can come into genuine conviction about the path. One should rely on a spiritual teacher with all the qualities. Of all the bardos the bardo of ordinary life is the most important. If we know how to transform it into practice, the other bardos can easily be used for our spiritual gains.

First find a qualified teacher of either sutra or tantra. A student should know how to test the teacher, then rely on the teacher, and then carry out the teacher’s instructions. If one can do this, then one is on the path. To analyze and check one’s teacher, one should use reasoning, inferences, signs, and so forth. Although one cannot see a teacher’s qualities directly one should be able to infer the qualities from signs, like one infers fire from smoke, or water by the presence of water fowl. Not only is it necessary to investigate one’s teacher, one should also examine the teachings, as a goldsmith examines gold to see if it is genuine. Through these examinations, if one finds a qualified teacher one should rely on them. But one should come to conviction first. Relying on a teacher with faith and devotion is important. If you find a teacher with bodhicitta, it is not mistaken to rely on them.

Once one finds a teacher, one should rely on them and be free of any negligence toward them or any deed that harms their body, speech, or mind. One should not only be unstained in this regard, one should serve the teacher through one’s body, speech, and mind. On the highest level one serves the lama by accomplishing the practice, on the middling level praising the lama’s accomplishments, and on the lowest level by benefiting the lama materially. One’s actions should be from the heart and not motivated by thoughts of personal gain.

The foundation of the dharma practice is the three vows. These are the pratimoksha vows, the bodhisattva vows, and tantric samayas. One should keep them purely and not break or damage them. The person who takes these vows should have genuine renunciation. There are seven types of pratimoksha vows and they should be taken with genuine renunciation. Of these seven, the first two are the lay male and female precepts. Within these one can take one, several, or all the precepts. Refuge vows are crucial and are included in the pratimoksha vows. In the Tibetan tradition one person can simultaneously take the sutra and tantric vows. But they all must have refuge as their basis. Without refuge vows any other vows are not meritorious. Refuge is taken in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Pratimoksha vows form the basis of all merit, like a plate that holds food. One needs not only to take the refuge vow, one must also maintain it. Regarding ordained practitioners, there are the probationary nun vows, the vows of novice monks and nuns, and the fully ordained monk and nun vows. There are many divisions regarding these vows.

The bodhisattva vow consists of benefiting others in four ways and refraining from harming them in four ways. Keeping these vows is conventional bodhicitta. Conventional bodhicitta is of two types: aspirational and actual. As a result of taking the bodhisattva vows one should engage in the conduct of a bodhisattva by meditating on the four immeasurables, practicing the six perfections, and performing the four pure activities. There are many ways of receiving the vows of conventional and ultimate bodhisattva, such as taking them from others or though one’s spontaneous realization.

The third vow is the tantric samaya vow. Its basis is pure perception, to see everything as primordially pure. This is seeing things as they are and not creating a fabrication of purity. The tantric vows can be gotten by taking the four empowerments. There are certain commitments one must maintain, such as the hundred thousand or million repetitions of mantra, but their essence is in keeping the commitment to the guru.

So if one takes all these vows, they are complementary to one another and do not contradict each other. Afflicted emotions are to be eliminated in all three levels of vows. Lord Jigten Sumgon says in the Gong Chik that the purpose of avoiding the ten negative actions is the same in all three levels of vows. The first three negative actions are of body: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Ending these three action is keeping the pratimoksha precepts. Through the bodhisattva vow one also avoids harming others and committing these actions. And when one perceives all beings as pure through the tantric vows, one also avoids these actions. The four types of verbal misconduct are lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless chatter. Avoiding these is keeping the pratimoksha vow. Doing so from bodhicitta is the bodhisattva vow. If one has pure perception of sound as mantra through the tantric vows one also keeps these vows. The three negative acts of mind are covetousness, intending to harm others, and wrong view. Wrong view refers to seeing what is right as wrong, or disbelieving in rebirth. Keeping these is the pratimoksha vow, doing so with the mind of bodhicitta is the bodhisattva vow, and seeing every thought as dharmakaya is keeping them through the tantric vow.

While keeping these vows, one should learn the sutra and tantra, avoiding sectarian views. One should not indulge too much in learning the terms and phrases, since they are not the actual meaning. It is important to bring whatever understanding one has to the path and take the teachings to heart. The essence of learning and contemplation lies in the teacher’s pith instructions. So it is important to receive these. To avoid the waste of this life one should renounce all worldly gains and not attach to the pleasures of this life, go to a solitary place, and engage in practice. While in retreat one should engage one’s body, speech, and mind in practice, or else one is no better than a wild beast living in a cave. If one does this, at the time of death, one will have no cause for remorse and regret. Instead one will feel confident in one’s practice.

Even if one gains an understanding of emptiness one should not disregard cause and effect. One should keep one’s actions consistent with the Buddha’s teachings. If one does this one is carrying out the teachings in the right way. It is important that view and activity complement each other.

During this life if one is unable to fully to engage in spiritual practice and gain confidence to face death without fear, it will be too late to practice in the other bardos. Padmasambhava said this is the time when one should make all the preparations for death. If one faces death unprepared it is too late and one will feel regret and be fearful. So training for death should begin here. There are different levels of teachings, depending on one’s abilities and dispositions. One can ripen one’s continuum by receiving empowerments and liberate it by receiving instructions. There are various types of empowerments, more and less elaborate. The teacher should be free of thoughts of gain and the person taking the empowerment should be free of thoughts of mundane gain. If one receives empowerments from mundane motives, it becomes a child’s play. The recipient should have faith and devotion in the teacher and tantra and the teacher should be qualified and knowledgeable in its practice. If one receives empowerment under these circumstances, one can gain wisdom. For example, when Tilopa gave empowerments to Naropa, he hit Naropa hard with his shoe. Naropa passed out and when he came back he had all the realizations. Whether one receives an empowerment does not just depend on if one goes to the ceremony. One receives it by actualizing the meaning of the empowerment. Just accumulating empowerments won’t liberate you. But actualizing them will. Similarly, liberation does not depend on the number of teachings you have attended. Instead one should reduce one’s afflictions and self grasping mind. One should have certain signs from attending empowerments and instructions.

There are many pith instructions: the Six Yogas of Naropa, the Path and Fruit (Lam Dre), Mahamudra, Dzogchen and so forth. They can all liberate you in this life and many great masters have achieved liberation in this life through them. So it is essential to put one’s body, speech, and mind in practice and to have pure perception to prepare ourselves for the other bardos. This is the essence of both the old and new traditions.

Ontrul Rinpoche
September 15, 2007
Tibetan Meditation Center