If one were to follow the tradition of the great Indian pandits, it is not until a practitioner has mastered the fundamentals of Buddhism that he or she engages in a Dharma Protector’s practice. In this day and age however, Dharma Protector practices are regarded as essential because of the immense obstacles and distractions that practitioners face when engaging in basic Buddhist practice.
That Dharma Protector practices are regarded as essential does not negate the importance of other practices. It certainly does not suggest that Dharma Protector practices can or should be practised in isolation to replace all of the Sutric and Tantric systems of Buddhism. Why? Because the ultimate protection comes in the form of extinguishing all our karma. When we have extinguished all our karma, we no longer possess the causes to be harmed or affected by negative beings and interferences. In relying upon the stainless Sutric and Tantric systems of Buddhism, we can accomplish this extinguishment of our karma.
So, although a fully enlightened Dharma Protector like Dorje Shugden can be relied upon as a main meditational deity (yidam), even Dorje Shugden himself advises practitioners to rely on a Spiritual Guide and to delve deeper into Buddhism, to truly understand the reasons why they continue to face obstacles. Only upon understanding this will we once and for all accomplish the methods to fully eliminate the causes for our suffering.
Having thus met with this Dharma Protector’s practice, some may wish to pursue Dorje Shugden’s advice to develop their spiritual path. The easiest way to do so is to find a Spiritual Guide, otherwise known as a Guru or teacher.
The Importance of a Spiritual guide
The importance of a Spiritual Guide in one’s path cannot be overstated. Simply put, a Spiritual Guide will assess our practice and our minds, and nurture us along the path to Enlightenment and recommend to us the relevant resources along the way. Teaching us through practice, knowledge and example, a Spiritual Guide also provides us with a model for appropriate spiritual behaviour. They help to answer our questions, quell our wrong views and clarify our thoughts.
Our Spiritual Guide is a mirror for our qualities, highlighting our positive attributes and shortcomings such that we may recognise then break our habituations which create our constant state of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. For this reason and many others, practitioners who are serious about their path will often say that their teachers are the foundation of all good qualities.
This is the most basic description of the purpose and role of a Spiritual Guide. What a practitioner should look for in a teacher, and the benefits of having a Spiritual Guide is a substantial topic in and of itself.
A good summary and starting point is the 50 Verses of Guru Devotion, the seminal text laying out a student’s proper attitude towards the teacher. Composed by Ashvagosha, it contains some verses relating to the qualities of a Guru:
A disciple with sense should not accept as his Guru someone who lacks compassion or who is angersome, vicious or arrogant, possessive, undisciplined or boasts of his knowledge.
(A Guru should be) stable (in his actions), cultivated (in his speech), wise, patient and honest. He should neither conceal his shortcomings, nor pretend to possess qualities he lacks. He should be an expert in the meanings (of tantra) and in its ritual procedures (of medicine and turning back obstacles). Also he should have loving compassion and a complete knowledge of the scriptures.
He should have full experience in all ten fields, skill in the drawing of mandalas, full knowledge of how to explain the tantras, supreme faith and his senses fully under control.
Care should therefore be taken when choosing a teacher. A teacher should be transparent about his background, education and lineage, and whom he has received teachings and empowerments from. This is highly recommended in one’s selection of a Spiritual Guide because when a teacher comes from an authentic lineage, the practitioner benefits from authentic Buddhist study. Through a qualified Spiritual Guide, the practitioner also receives the blessings of all the lineage gurus who precede one’s teacher, blessed because they gained attainments as a result of practising the very same teachings we now study.
In the case of His Eminence the 25th Tsem Rinpoche, for example, his root Guru is His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche whose root Guru was His Holiness Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, also known as the junior tutor of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche’s root Guru was His Holiness Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche, and so on and so forth, traced all the way back to the original Buddha Shakyamuni from whom all Dharma teachings in this age stems.
Once a student has spent a suitable amount of time examining the qualities of the teacher, and the teacher has examined the student, a Guru-disciple relationship is forged.
If we are honest and we truly examine the qualities of the people in our lives, very few people exist altruistically and work solely for the benefit of our minds, with no ulterior motives to gain anything for themselves. Having found such a loving person in our teacher, one would be foolish to abandon them.
Not everyone has the fortune to find a Spiritual Guide immediately, some people taking longer than others. In lieu of a Spiritual Guide, the interested practitioner can still rely on a multitude of online and offline resources for further study.
Countless books have been written covering the basics of Buddhism, for example The Living Buddha Within authored by H.E. Tsem Rinpoche as well as Introduction to Buddhism by Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, or even the prosaically-titled Buddhism for Dummies.
An increasing number of qualified teachers like Tsem Rinpoche are also making their teachings available online via their websites and social media platforms. Online Dharma courses are also available for those interested in a more systematic approach to study.
Developing the Fundamentals
For those new to Buddhism, reading widely is encouraged to gain as much knowledge as possible. With such knowledge, we will be better equipped to identify a school or lineage of Buddhism that we are interested in or we feel an affinity towards. Having identified such a tradition, it is then recommended that, for the time being, we focus on that tradition and pursue it.
Buddha Shakyamuni taught 84,000 different teachings to appeal to as many minds. Although the essence of all these teachings is the same, and although all of them lead to the same result (Enlightenment), without the benefit of a Spiritual Guide to identify this for us, new practitioners may be confused by the differing appearance and presentations of the various teachings. These perceived differences may be viewed as a contradiction when, in reality, there are none. Thus, focusing on one tradition, having identified which school of thought appeals most to us, is not done out of favouritism or bias. Focusing on one tradition is more to our benefit because it protects the new practitioner’s mind by preventing confusion and doubt from arising.
Another benefit of coming under the guidance of a teacher is that our Gurus will prescribe to us various practices, with a view of creating a close connection with the Buddha with whom we have the greatest karmic affinity (yidam). Even before we receive our yidam, we may be asked by our teachers to complete the most basic practices in Tibetan Buddhism known as the preliminary practices (ngöndro). These practices are performed with the motivation to purify karma and accumulate merit to support our spiritual progress. Some of the preliminaries include:
- 100,000 prostrations to the 35 Confessional Buddhas, with the recitation of their names
- 100,000 Vajrasattva (Dorje Sempa) mantras, with the Vajrasattva practice and visualisation
- 100,000 mandala offerings
- 100,000 water bowl offerings to the Three Jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
- 100,000 tsa tsas (votive plaque or tablet)
The figures are by no means exhaustive, but are provided as a guideline minimum for us to accomplish before we can move on to higher Tantric practices.
In some cases, our teachers may not instruct us to engage in traditional preliminary practices but instead ask us to engage in Dharma work. In this case, the purpose of the preliminary practices may be accomplished when we engage in Dharma work with the correct attitude and motivation. Dharma work involves any kind of activity that serves and supports the temple and the lineage, to make the propagation and preservation of Dharma possible. This can range from working in the kitchen to provide food for the Sangha, to sweeping and cleaning the temple, to organising and teaching classes, to nurturing and caring for sponsors.
In the process of engaging in Dharma work, we will come across many opportunities to purify our karma and accumulate merit. For example, obstacles will arise as a result of the negative karma of the people we are trying to benefit, to prevent them from furthering their spiritual practice. In working to overcome these obstacles, we purify our own karma dealing with our frustrations (for example).
When others benefit from our works and experience a little less dissatisfaction in their everyday lives, or when they become a source of happiness for others, we can take credit for this; creating and strengthening their connection to the Dharma, and having the opportunity to offer our service to the Three Jewels (in lieu of, say, water offerings) allows us to accumulate merit.
For those who are without a teacher, it is recommended that they familiarise themselves with the basic concepts of Buddhism, to truly understand why they are suffering and require the assistance of a Dharma Protector like Dorje Shugden in their daily lives. Useful concepts that all spiritual seekers should be aware of include:
- The Four Noble Truths
- Karma, how it is created and purified, and its role in keeping us in samsara
- Merit, how it is created and its significance in our spiritual path
- Reincarnation and death, and their importance in Buddhist practice
- The preciousness of human life
- The Eightfold Path
- The Three Doors of body, speech and mind
- The Three Poisons of ignorance, attachment and aversion
- The Eight Worldly Dharmas and why Buddhists seek to live a life free from these
- The Three Principal Paths of renunciation, Bodhicitta and the realisation of Emptiness
- Guru Devotion and its fundamental role in our spiritual practice
Some of the concepts above may be abstract to the new practitioner. In such times, it is useful to follow a graduated path of study so that we may gain a deeper, more systematic understanding of Buddhist principles that we can then apply to our lives. Experiencing thus the benefits of applying the practice, we gain firsthand knowledge about the relevance and applicability of Buddhism as a means of enhancing our quality of life and ascending closer to our spiritual goals.
In the quest for a systematic path, Gelug practitioners will no doubt find themselves on the Lamrim path. Study of the Lamrim is considered the most fundamental, as it distills the essence of Buddha Shakyamuni’s 84,000 teachings for the practitioner’s benefit.
It is said that all Tibetan Buddhist traditions can be traced back to India. In the case of the Lamrim, it was first taught by the great Indian pandit and scholar Atisha. Living in Tibet at the time, he composed The Lamp on the Path to Enlightenment in apology for his inability to fulfil a promise made to his Guru to return to India within a stipulated time.
Having distilled the essence of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings, Lord Atisha set out to present a step-by-step method of cultivating the Buddhanature within us such that practitioners may reach Enlightenment in a systematic manner. His text was delivered to his teacher in Nalanda Monastery, where it was presented to all the scholars and monks who debated its content. Finding that it was without flaw, the text was henceforth accepted and taught as part of the body of Buddhist literature.
Centuries later, Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche would present to the world the Southern Lamrim Tradition. A synthesis of the various Lamrim traditions taught over the many years since Atisha’s time, the tradition presented by Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche had its validity authenticated by His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama. This is the current tradition of Lamrim relied upon by all Gelug practitioners, which was expounded over 24 days by Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche. The teachings were later recorded and edited by his heart disciple, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche.
Like Atisha’s Lamrim tradition, Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche presented the path to Enlightenment in a graduated manner, to suit the ability of three types of spiritual persons categorised on the basis of their motivation (whether small, intermediate or supreme). Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche was famed for using language and examples that ordinary laypeople would find relevant and decades later, they still certainly do.
Lojong (Mind Transformation)
Having become familiar with the general teachings of the Buddha, a Guru may then impart the mind transformation (Lojong) teachings onto the practitioner. This set of teachings is crucial to developing a daily practice, and it focuses on refining and purifying one’s motivation and attitudes.
The Lojong teachings can also be traced back to Atisha, who first described them in his book The Lamp on the Path to Enlightenment. These teachings were based on his studies with the great master Serlingpa, who composed The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, a text detailing the workings of karma.
Other masters of the Lojong teachings include Geshe Langri Tangpa, who composed the Eight Verses of Mind Transformation. This is considered a succinct yet complete summary of the Lojong teachings and has become extremely popular around the world for its clarity, accessibility and relevance even amongst those who do not consider themselves Buddhist. It is one of the core teachings at Kechara House in Malaysia, the Dharma organisation established by H.E. Tsem Rinpoche.
Developing on the Path
While it may not be strictly necessary for a practitioner on the Sutric path to have a teacher, one is required to have a Guru in order to start on higher Tantric practices. Not only are the higher Tantras more esoteric but it is necessary to have the Guru initiate the practitioner into the deity’s mandala, in order to receive the full benefits of the practice and the blessings of the lineage lamas.
Thus, having mastered the Sutric path, the practitioner may then, with the Guru’s permission, advance onto the Tantric path. At this point, the Guru will initiate the practitioner into yidam practices like Heruka, Yamantaka or Vajrayogini. These practices incorporate much more subtle points in meditation and visualisation, involving the movement of winds and energy channels.
Of all the Tantric systems in existence, eminent scholars and attained masters recommend Vajrayogini as being the most appropriate Tantric practice for spiritual seekers of today. They speak of contemporary practitioners having a close karmic affinity with this female Buddha, whose practice harnesses our desire energy, redirecting it towards an enlightened goal.
These masters also recommend her practice for its simplicity, which is relative to the other Tantric deities who manifest in more complicated forms. Though her form is simple to visualise compared to, for example, Kalachakra (who has a different colour for every fingernail!), her practice is no less potent in its ability to develop the qualities of our subtle mind. Vajrayogini, whose celestial paradise Kechara lends its name to H.E. Tsem Rinpoche’s organisation, is practised in the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the current Gelug lineage of Vajrayogini can be traced to the Indian mahasiddha Naropa.
If a practitioner relies on any Tantric deity consistently, these practices become potent tools in advancing our spiritual progress, particularly if our practice is combined with efforts to maintain a positive relationship with our teacher. Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche was a great proponent of Vajrayogini’s practice and through a vision of her, he prophesied that any students who receive her lineage within four generations of him will ascend to her paradise within seven lifetimes.
A guaranteed rebirth in a Buddha’s paradise or pure land is considered extremely ideal and highly precious because it represents an opportunity for the spiritual practitioner to learn directly from the enlightened beings themselves. Consider the difference between learning from the scientist who authored the research paper, versus the scientist who read the paper once. The result in the student will be vastly different!
As you can see, there is a substantial path ahead of us beyond our Dharma Protector practice. The concepts described above are generalised insomuch that to understand them in their entirety and fully master them can take years.
Still, the most basic Buddhist concept that even non-Buddhists will be familiar with is karma. And knowing about karma (the law of cause and effect), it would therefore benefit any spiritual practitioner to make a connection with the Buddhas, no matter how distant they may seem given our current condition. When we can visualise the enlightened state we wish to achieve, and we vocalise aspirational prayers to achieve that state, it creates the causes for our minds to move closer to fulfilling our spiritual potential.
So for those who are new to Buddhism, Tantric practices may seem out of our reach for the time being. Recognising this fact, our Dharma Protector practice becomes all the more essential. In the time it will take us to develop the qualities necessary to be initiated into Tantra, obstacles will manifest as a result of our negative karma, to stop us from entering this most beneficial of traditions. The Dharma Protector practice will help us to clear these obstacles and smoothen our journey towards spiritual fulfilment.
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