teachings by Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche
Although all of us certainly have a strong aspiration towards the highest and essential teachings of Vajrayana, we must understand that we first need to have a strong foundation before we can begin to practice these teachings. We would not undertake to build a beautiful palace on a fragile foundation. Likewise, we need to establish a firm foundation for practice and this can be done by developing a deep feeling of "renunciation" or a strong sense of weariness with the ordinary conditions in samsara.
If our mind is free from wordily concerns and preoccupations it will be very easy to progress through the various steps of the path, either towards the self-liberation of the Hinayana, the altruistic liberation of the Mahayana or the supreme accomplishment offered by the Vajrayana. We might practise the Dharma simply for achieving relative happiness and satisfaction, such as long life or good health. We may also simply enjoy the highest states in samsara, but none of this will give us freedom from samsara. Actually, we need to realize that we will not find ultimate fulfilment in the whole of samsara.
How does this urge to free ourselves from conditioned existence take birth in our mind? It is by contemplating activities, thoughts and concerns and checking if they are truly as meaningful as they might appear to be, and if in fact they can give a meaning to our life. As it is said in “The Way of the Bodhisattve” of Shantideva: “Most people spend their lives trying to achieve things that cannot bring them lasting happiness such as obtaining possessions, land, rank, money or power and thinking that they will find fulfilment from this, which is just a mere illusion." People might think that if they have limitless possessions they will be happy. But in fact they will have to go through much effort and worries just in order to gain those possessions and they will never be satisfied.
Once they have them, they worry about how to keep them, they become afraid to lose them, and eventually, when that happens, they suffer from loosing what they took so much effort to get. The same is true for power, rank or fame. What tremendous endeavor it takes for people to achieve a high rank! Look at how they easily discard any concerns for the welfare of others in order to achieve their own goals! And once they succeed, look at all the tricks they have to use to keep them! And when they eventually lose them, check how they completely fall into despair! It is the same for those who chase after the illusion of celebrity and spend their lives trying to become famous - something which is completely meaningless and hollow.
Now, the point of this is not to disparage all our activities, but simply to establish a correct hierarchy. We should understand that possessions, rank and all these kinds of concerns are meaningless aims and therefore there is no point in spending our lives entangled in them. This understanding will give us a strong urge to get out of the vicious circle of endless and meaningless activities and help us so discover what is truly meaningful. Moreover, it is crucial to realise that we do not have much time to accomplish it. Thus seeing that our usual preoccupations are devoid of substance, and the truth of impermanence and the eventuality of death, we should realize that it is urgent to give true meaning to our life and that this meaning is really what we should focus on. This strong urge is called renunciation and it is the spur and the foundation of turning our mind to the Dharma.
In the end, once our mind becomes truly suitable for inner transformation, we don’t feel more interest for what allures ordinary beings—possessions, fame, and so on—than a dog for grass. So, we should cultivate this feeling of non-attachment until we loose complete interest for possessions, wealth, fame, rank and all sort of endless projects. This does not mean we aim, in our Western countries, to become a person like the great yogi Milarepa who spent his life in very austere conditions in mountain caves and so forth. It is simply that if our mind is attracted to those worldly concerns it is difficult to go through an inner transformation. There are other reflections that may help us to strengthen the wish to free ourselves from the conditioned world.
First we should realise this human life is not something ordinary, with no value, but that it is a precious opportunity. We should therefore appreciate and try to give meaning to it. Secondly, even though we have now a human life, it is so fragile that at any moment some unpredictable circumstances might bring us death. In that way, the thought of impermanence should be like a spur to our diligence so that we never forget we may not have such an unique opportunity for a very long time. The third reflection is that if we want to proceed on this path of inner transformation there are suitable things to accomplish that will help us to progress on the path, and there are things we should be able to discard because they are going to hinder our progress. That is the reflection on the law of cause and effect, or karma.
Throughout the history of Tibet there are many examples of great sages who were able to completely disentangle themselves from worldly concerns. Among those, there is a famous wondering sage of the 19th century known as Patrul Rinpoche. Patrul Rinpoche mostly taught on compassion. The text he would use again and again was the Bodhicaryavattara, The way of the Bodhisattva. He would often teach in open spaces like mountain meadows. In Tibet when a teacher gives a teaching it is traditional to make offerings to him, but Patrul Rinpoche would never accept any offering.
Once he gave teachings for a few weeks, and instead of sitting on a throne he sat on an elevated mound of earth with grass on the top in the middle of a meadow. Although the people knew that he generally didn’t accept offerings, at the end of the teachings some of them offered him a large piece of silver. Patrul Rinpoche just left it there in the grass, without anyone noticing. After the teaching Patrul Rinpoche left, as usual for no particular destination, with just a small bag in hand.
That night, he slept under the trees in the forest. A thief who knew that Patrul Rinpoche had been offered the silver had been following him. While Patrul Rinpoche was sleeping, he came and looked in the small bag but, since he could not find any silver, he started to search Patrul Rinpoche’s clothes. Then, Rinpoche woke up and said: “Why are you searching my clothes like that?” The thief answered: “Well, I need the silver you were offered.” Rinpoche replied, “Oh, why didn’t you say so before? I left it at the teaching place, where I was sitting. Go and get it for yourself.”
The thief didn’t really believe that, but since Patrul Rinpoche had no silver, he thought he would better check for himself. He went back and found the big piece of silver there. “What a special lama!”, he thought. So he rushed again to Patrul Rinpoche. As he was coming, Rinpoche asked: “What are you coming again for?" The thief did three prostrations and said: “Well, you are a lama unlike any other, so I want to become your disciple." This story shows that when we speak of renunciation, it is the same for us as for those great teachers like Patrul Rinpoche: the point is not to deprive oneself of something, but to simply to have no need for such things. Actually, renunciation is a great freedom.