III Challenges of the contemporary disciple
We have tried above to show the deeper meaning and role of a Spiritual Master, as well as the way in which he should be sought and followed, by first looking at what dharma means, how it came into this world and further in Tibet; we also looked at a summary of the extensive teachings given in both sutras and tantras about the Master and disciple relationship.
We saw that we do not only have to carefully examine a prospective Master, but we also have to fundamentally alter our outer and inner behaviour to be able to benefit from his presence, Teachings and Blessings.
Today, moreover, we are living in what is known as the degenerate times, presenting us with additional challenges as well as making the rare opportunities to meet and be guided by an authentic Teacher even more exceptional and precious.
Why is this period we live in called degenerate times? Prophecies abound about the particularity of our times and its struggles, yet it is very difficult for us to recognise or acknowledge this, because the degeneration of the times is rooted in the thickening of our own obscurations and deepening of ignorance with the inevitable correlate of narrowing of our mind’s horizon.
How can it be so, we may ask, when most people are talking about a general progress and improvement? Well, if we examine the nature of the so-called progress and the apparent increase in personal freedom, we will soon realise that these, indeed, only relate to the pursuit of external goals. By this we count an increase of material wealth, improvement of facilities- albeit for some part of the world only; people are becoming more eager to speak their mind, believe in their own ability and strive for the betterment of their physical surroundings. This however does not occur without a cost, that we are not prepared to examine.
Improving material wealth happens at the cost of the environment both physical and social, whereby those in pursuit of this goal will sacrifice anything to achieve success, family, values and traditions which are reminding us of the impermanence of people and things, the need to remind ourselves of the cycle of suffering and death. Instead they put these considerations to the side and engage in a frenzied chase without ever seeing a satisfaction to their desires and perceived needs.
Young people are demanding more freedom and responsibility, refusing to listen to older generations ‘ experiences, believing they know better than their parents or teachers and thereby unleashing an unrestrained flow of conflict, suffering and quarrels among families and social groups. As such generations succeed each other, less moral values, understanding and compassion are to be found, since they are systematically uprooted from the children both at home and in school.
It is therefore very difficult for us these days, even if we have the fortunate karma to meet with an authentic Spiritual Master, to be able to follow him according to the advice we are hearing. The values of respect and service are alien to our western society and appear old fashion and obsolete. The habits we have acquired from our social surroundings are so strong yet subtle that they reflect the narrowing of our ability to reflect on the benefit of such and such advice and form layers of obstacles we have to work hard to recognise and eliminate.
Furthermore, we have the innate tendency to want to see results there and then, even before understanding what the situation really is and what is needed to remedy to it. We listen superficially to a little bit of advice, may be, if we have time try to apply it over breakfast, and by lunch time complain that we have seen no improvement; by evening time we are demoralised and go the pictures to consol ourselves…
This certainly cannot work and does not reflect any understanding of how long habits have taken to form themselves. Like ruts, we now unconsciously follow them and Masters warn us over again, that overturning them is not an easy matter, which can be accomplished overnight. Methods to do so exist, but what are lacking are our sustained determination to apply them at any cost and the real concentration to do so. This sustained determination, this unfailing courage we are exhorted to develop are the fruits of both inner reflections on the Teachings we receive from our Masters as well as the unshakable confidence in their validity, born out of faith and devotion.
So although the texts describe in great details the preciousness of our human life, the only form of existence, which allows us to free ourselves from the cycle of Samsara, through meeting with the dharma and authentic Masters, we act as if we could waste this life in trivial pursuits with impunity. Although we do not know when the moment of death will occur, we act as if eons were in front for us to enjoy, and when death strikes, we are just as helpless and lost as any other, wandering without realisation in the bardo and rushing indiscriminately into the next samsaric incarnation.
To benefit from having sought, found and to follow an authentic Master correctly, we must therefore unfold vigilance and courage as never before. Painstakingly listening to the Master advice, Patrul Rinpoche summarises for us how to receive the Teachings the defects we must guard against and the qualities we must develop:
When listening to Teachings, we should apply the five perfections of place, Teacher, Assembly, Teaching and time, not considering the occasion on which we are receiving these teachings as ordinary or impure. For the place, in which we are receiving the Teachings, we should visualise not the ordinary room we may be seated in, but we of the Buddhas pure realms such as Akanishta Heaven or Guru Rinpoche’s Paradise, Sangdog Palri (The Copper Colored Mountain). The Teacher should be apprehended as the Lord of the particular pure realm we are visualising, such as Samanthabadra or Guru Rinpoche. The assembly should represent male and female Bodhisattvas and Lineage holders, the twenty-five disciples and the dakas and dakinis. The Teacher is not an ordinary human being we may think is sitting in front of us but embodies the essence of the Buddhas of the three times, inseparable with the vast expanse of reality. He is the union of the three jewels, where is body represent the Sangha, his speech the dharma and his mind the Buddha
We can also say that he symbolises the three roots, with his body being the Lama, his speech the yidam and his mind the dakinis as well as the three kayas with his body being the nirmanakaya, his speech the Sambhogakaya and his mind the Dharmakaya. Thus the pure spiritual Master is no different from all the Buddhas of the past, all the Buddhas of the future and represents all the Buddhas of the present and we, the listeners are also present there with our innate Buddha nature that our obscurations do not let us recognise at present yet. This should not be taken as a mere imagination exercise, but as we are training ourselves with diligence to apply this advice, we will come to realise that this is really so and not just a picture in our minds.
We furthermore have no training in knowing how to listen to Teachings and how to retain them correctly. Hence the scriptures detail how we should behave and what will be harmful. In what we should be weary of avoiding, the following metaphors are given of the three defects of the pot, the six stains and the five wrong ways of remembering.
If we attend teachings but are not actually listening or our mind is wandering after other worldly concern, we will be like a pot turned upside down in which no liquid can be poured or a pot with a leak in it which can never retain what is poured into it. The great Indian Pandita Phadampa Sangye who brought the chod practice to Tibet describes the attitude we should adopt in the following manner.
Listen to the Teachings like a deer listen to music
Contemplate them like a northern nomad shearing sheep
Meditate on them like a dumb person savouring food
Practice them like a hungry yak eating grass
Reach their result like the sun coming out from behind the clouds
If, on the other hand we listen to the Teachings full of emotions, it is compared to the poisoned pot and the dharma we are receiving is mixed with our negativity and will lead to no good results. Instead, it may even lead us to the lower realms.
The six stains are described as pride, lack of faith and lack of effort, outward distraction and inner tensions and discouragement.
Of pride, it is said that it is the most difficult to recognise, as we harbour subtle feelings of being someone special, having above others abilities and even place ourselves above the Teacher. If we have no faith, it will be difficult for us to trust the Master’s words and have interest in listening to them. There are four kind of faith and we should strive, as explain previously to develop irreversible faith.
Lack of effort reflects our propensity to expect fast results instantaneously, and we fall prey to outward distractions, or we focus so intently inwardly that we create artificial tensions. As soon as we meet with a little difficulty, we feel discouraged; Oh today is too hot, or too cold or it is too difficult to seat still in a unusual position for us, we are feeling sleepy, hungry, thirsty, tired, the list of distractions and causes for not concentrating is endless. And as we succumb to we or the other of these inconvenience, we fail to recognise that we are missing the chance to escape the true and endless cycle of suffering to which we will return as soon as we step out of the room, full as we are of many past habits and aspiration to fulfil future desires. So we really need to learn to be present with a steady but not tense concentration and examine our behaviour both outer and inner.
We should remember with gratitude how fortunate we are to be able to listen to those Teachings from an authentic Master and receive his liberating Blessings. Each difficulty that we encounter and learn to overcome is a blessing from the Master who thereby also guide us to free ourselves from negative patterns and open our minds, widening and deepening our concentration and wisdom.
Further we should guard ourselves from the five wrong ways of remembering which are described as follows
Avoid remembering the words but forgetting the meanings
Or remembering the meaning but forgetting the words
Avoid remembering both but with no understanding
Remembering them out of order or remembering them incorrectly
Really instead, as the scriptures describe, we should think of ourselves as someone who is sick, the dharma as the medicine, our Master as a skilful physician and of our unerring practice as the mean to recovery. Do not seek the Teachings for personal gains, not intending on practising it and distrusting the Master.
So, as we are about to receive precious words from our Master, we should remember to make offerings from the heart, clean the place where the teachings are to take place and control our behaviour.
Every we seems to like to set up the altar, as if some special position was attached to it, but if we do so, we should carefully check our motivation and question what we really are trying to achieve by this.
There was once a practitioner who expected the visit of his patrons. To make the room nice and tidy, he got up early that morning and prepared specially nice and precious offerings. Then stepping back to judge the result of his endeavours, he suddenly realised that his motivation had not been to make a genuine offerings to the deities but to impress his patrons and full of shame with himself, he threw a handful of dust on the altar. As the patrons arrived, they were surprised to see the offerings thus sullied and ask him for the reason. He confessed to his wrong mind set. It was then said by another Master that this indeed had been a true and best offering – that of the mind.
So we should not be partial to we or another task, choosing one kind of job and feeling aversion for the others, but involve ourselves willingly with all that needs to be done to prepare the visit or successful conduct of a Teaching as well as the clearing up thereafter. This is also part of the service we render to our Master, whether or not anyone is actually aware of our efforts or not.
We are so used to a lax attitude, the type of familiarity we develop among peers, that it is very difficult for us to seat still, without pointing our feet towards the Master or the altar or turning our backs to either. We slump on the cushions, lie around, eating, drinking, making noises, disturbing each other through uncouth behaviour more suited to a friends party than a dharma teaching.
It seems to be equally difficult for us to refrain from talking, be it a mundane gossip or some comments we feel we have to share with friends. Even if the teachings are quite long, we can adjust our position quietly and may be keep a glass of water close by, but certainly not a full Indian curried meal…
We should also have a little bit of thoughts about our dress code. These days, most things go, and we have lost the sense of what is decent without been pompous. We should really try to avoid shorts and mini skirts, look for long pants or dress discreet tops with longer sleeves or at least no fully bared arms, quiet colours which will not disturb others concentration, and discreet personal hygiene which respect the delicacy of others’ senses.
Inwardly, we should beware of our thoughts not only towards our Master but also towards our fellow listeners. We have the habit of spending our time looking and judging other people behaviour and forgetting to keep our own in check. Thus our listening is poisoned with thoughts concerning others and distracting us from intense listening. As we inwardly or outwardly bear critical feelings towards our Vajra brothers and sisters, we not only succumb to distraction but also commit the grave fault of breaking the Samaya, which hold the Master’s entire disciple into a mandala. If the person we are feeling critical about happens to be, unbeknown to us, a bodhisattva we will further in we instant loose the merit of eons of accumulation .For it is said that speaking against a Bodhisattva or our Master will lead us straight into hell. It is far better to follow our Master’s advice to develop Bodhicitta, the compassionate mind of Enlightenment at the beginning of each teaching and actually reflecting on its meaning to train in both aspiring and practical Bodhicitta.
As we strive and make efforts to control both outer and inner behaviour, our mind will slowly become softer and tamed. Like taming a wild horse involves the use of reins at first, we can skilfully bring it back home without it rebelling so that later as the habits change, only the subtle change of weight of the rider brings the horse to attention. To us, it means that we first become aware of how much our minds are wandering, and by following our Master step by step advice, slowly and gently bring it home, that is allow it to focus neither too tensely nor too loosely, until it finds its natural state of rest without effort and does not find anything more to do.
 Listening disciples receiving the teachings
 Fully savouring the foods but unable to describe their taste in the same way as true meditation can not be described nor conceptualised
 see appendix The Four Kinds of Faith
 Think for instance about strong perfumes or fragrances which can be distressing to others