Old Relationships, New Possibilities
by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

We all have some rough relationships in our lives that seem held together by the stickiness of attachment and expectation. It is true that we have love and care for these people, but, at the same time, it’s not so clean; there’s plenty of complexity. Inside, we feel an emotional tug when we see or think of them. This is often exaggerated with the people we are close to and with whom we share a strong dynamic, such as our parents, children, close friends, or spouse — all relationships where a lot of expectations tend to arise. There are many unspoken demands. In the midst of our romance, marriage, or parenting, we find ourselves responsible for someone else’s loneliness and their emotional or physical pain.

There is a Tibetan term that describes this kind of dynamic: lenchak, commonly translated as “karmic debt.” Len literally means “time” or “occurrence,” while chak refers to “attachment,” “attraction,” or the notion of a karmic pull toward someone, usually in an unhealthy way. So lenchak could be understood as the residue that revisits us from the dynamic of a relationship from what some would call a past life, a dynamic now strengthened by habitual responses. Lenchak is most often used to explain or describe why a particular relationship is how it is.

In the Buddhist texts, we read that in certain hell realms beings experience the negative results of past unwholesome relationships. They hear their name being called out and experience a pull toward the voice of the person they once knew. They travel toward that voice but end up encountering horrendous creatures and experiencing intense physical and mental anguish. This is interesting because, with those with whom we have lenchak, we feel an immediate pull beyond our control or sense of resistance. Our name is called, and we jump at once to serve them. This is not a conscious decision — not a joyous decision — but more like being propelled by a strong wind. Our reaction — whether with anger, jealousy, attachment, or what have you — only serves to reinforce the dynamic. People have done many things “in the name of love.” But if this is love, it’s not a healthy kind of love.

In Tibet they say there is a lake where, during a particular full moon each year, the seal-like creatures who live there gather fish in their mouths and offer them up to hordes of owls who hover in the trees above, waiting to eat. There is no apparent reason for the seals to offer the fish other than the fact that the owls seem to expect it. As the story goes, the seals gain nothing from offering the fish, and the owls are never satisfied. So, they say, since there is no obvious reason for this dynamic to be as it is, “it must be lenchak.”

The lenchak dynamic has two sides: the seal side and the owl side. If we are the seal, we feel an unspoken emotional responsibility for someone else’s mind and well-being. We feel pulled toward this person as if they have a claim on us. It’s a strong visceral experience, and we have a physical reaction to it: the phone rings and we check our caller ID — it’s “the owl.” We should pick it up, but we are overcome by a strong wave of anxiety and repulsion as if we are being attacked by our own nervous system. We brace ourselves for a problem or a strong emotional download. As much as we want to detach ourselves from this person, we can’t break loose; it’s as if they have captured us, and there’s no escape — checkmate! Of course, this is not the case. In truth, we are held hostage by our own attachment, guilt, and inability to resist the pain that comes from feeling unreasonably responsible for them. On one hand, we can’t bear watching the owl struggle. On the other hand, we can’t let go. This dynamic brings us down; it makes us lose our lustre as human beings.

Meanwhile, the owl is never satisfied, no matter how many fish the seal tries to feed it. Of course, when caught in the owl syndrome we don’t see it in this way. We feel neglected, isolated, and weak. The reason for this is that we are depending on someone else in hopes that they will manage our fears. We have so many unspoken demands, although we often express these demands in a meek and needy way. The owl syndrome reduces us to a childlike state. We begin to question whether or not we can do things on our own, and we lose confidence in our ability to face our minds and emotions. Interestingly, the owl — so frail, needy, and insecure — is not necessarily as feeble as it seems to be. In fact, the owl has the upper hand. It’s a little manipulative if you want to know the truth. The owl just doesn’t want to clean up its own mess. This is a privileged attitude. If the owl couldn’t afford to be weak — if it didn’t have the seal — it would naturally rise to its own challenges.

The irony of this dynamic is that, in most cases, the more fish the seal offers the owl, the more resentful, demanding, and dissatisfied the owl gets. For both the seal and owl, this kind of dependence and expectation gives way to a lot of ugliness. At work, we may have to hold our tongues and swallow what our boss has to say, but there is no holding back with our loved ones. We let our guard down and allow ourselves to get ugly, spreading our web of ego anxieties all over the place. It’s true, the seal may temporarily pacify the owl, but no mutual respect arises from this kind of arrangement. And in truth, isn’t it respect that we want most of all? Everyone wants love and care, but, more than these, human beings want respect for who they are. Even an enemy can respect another enemy. There is a sense of human dignity in this.

In this confusion of lenchak for love, we fear that without the lenchak dynamic our relationships will completely fall apart. What is there beyond all the obligations, all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” and all the fantasies we try to live up to? The distinction between love and lenchak needs to be examined carefully. Love and care toward others warm the heart and makes us generous and giving. Feelings of love and care arise naturally; they are not the product of pressures and demands. Think about the attachment and pain of lenchak. Think of all the insecurities and resentment that come with it. Lenchak makes us feel like we are not up for our own life and its challenges or that we can’t handle seeing others in pain. And yet we don’t trust that they can handle their own lives, either!

When it’s time for a child to start walking, a mother needs to let her child walk. She needs to let the child lose his or her balance, fall down, and then find balance once again. Alone, the child needs to get up and stand on his or her own two feet. Although children need protection, we need to have confidence in their potential to flourish. We don’t want to hold them captive by our own fears and doubts — this creates the unhealthy dependence we have been talking about. Letting children immerse themselves in a challenging situation or obstacle for a while gives the child confidence. It gives the mother confidence, too. It’s one of the early steps a mother takes in letting the child become a citizen of the world.

When challenges or obstacles arise for us, we don’t have to get so intimidated; we can say, “Yes, it’s an obstacle, but it is not intrinsically bad; it’s not going to destroy me.” To create a relationship with the obstacle, learn about it, and finally overcome it is going to be a helpful thing to do. It gives us a chance to cultivate wisdom and skilful means. It gives us confidence. We cannot eliminate all of the challenges or obstacles in life — our own or anyone else’s. We can only learn to rise to the occasion and face them. Shantideva suggests that we need to cultivate a “Can do! Why not? No problem!” kind of attitude toward our neuroses and obstacles in order to overcome them. If we have no confidence, we’ll already be defeated, like a dead snake lying on the ground. Around a dead snake, even a sparrow can act like a garuda! (This ancient mythological Indian bird, said to be able to travel from one end of the universe to the other with a single movement of its wings, is also said to hatch from the egg fully developed, and is thus used as a symbol for the awakened state of mind.) In the same way, the smallest fear or neurosis will entirely overpower us.

The great deception of lenchak is that it doesn’t even occur to us that our suffering is our own. We automatically expect that others should share in it or take it on themselves. In this way, lenchak gets in the way of our owning up to the responsibility of our lives. There are times when we try to pull others in for sympathy. If asked, “How are you?” we will review our full history. It starts off, “I’m okay, but . . . .” We feel a need to share everything. At the end of the conversation, others know all our troubles and ailments. We just can’t seem to go through the process on our own with our own strength.

But do we really need to be transparent as glass? Do others really want this kind of honesty? People often can’t handle all the details and confusion in their own lives. It is safe to assume that they have emotional ups and downs and uncomfortable physical sensations like we do. Furthermore, unless they are our doctors, what can they actually do for us?

At the end of my mother’s life, when she was quite sick, an old friend came to see her. When he asked how she was feeling, she said, “I’m fine.” I later asked her why she said that, and she replied, “What else should I say?” When you ask accomplished teachers how they are, they always say, “Good, good, very good” — always good. Many people say that they feel dishonest saying they are good when in fact they have problems. But what we are talking about here is developing a fundamental sense of strength and well being. Wouldn’t it be better to associate our mind with that rather than with all the fleeting emotions and physical sensations we experience throughout the day? What is the point of being honest about something so fleeting and impossible to pin down? If your well-being is so dependent upon your emotions and physical sensations, you will have little opportunity to say, “I am well.” So when people ask how you are, say, “Good!” You may need to pump yourself up a little bit in the beginning, but soon you will start to believe it yourself. You will begin to see that people feel more attracted to you. They won’t feel that subtle tug when they see you coming. And they will be less hesitant to ask how you are!

When we are bound by the emotional needs of others, or simply afraid of our own, how can we entertain the idea of engaging a spiritual path? And when our relationships with others are so unclean and confused, how can we expect to extend kindness to others and work for their benefit? Lenchak goes against the most fundamental principles of spiritual practice. We are always seeking something from the outside and forgetting that our fundamental well-being and strength depend on how we relate to our own minds. Falling under the sway of the lenchak dynamic is like losing possession of our very lives. It’s like letting others lead us around by the nose ring as if we were a buffalo or a cow. What could be more detrimental than losing our freedom in this way?

All the great practitioners know the consequences and pitfalls of lenchak, so they fiercely guard their independence. They are savvy when it comes to working with others because they know that whether it concerns their students, parents, family, or whoever, if they fell prey to the lenchak dynamic, it would eat up their time and their peace of mind. Moreover, because it is a dynamic based on neurosis, lenchak leaves no supportive ground on which to serve others. In the end, they would find themselves leading an entirely different life from the spiritual life of practice they envisioned for themselves.

Knowing this, many yogis have steered clear of societal demands and led simple lives, travelling alone without the complications that come with having many sponsors and attendants. The great Nyingma teacher Patrul Rinpoche [1808–1887] had a strong, uncompromising presence and was completely immune to any kind of deception or partiality. There are stories that when important dignitaries would come for an audience — some of them so proud it would have taken a bulldozer to get their heads down — they would shake like prayer flags in his presence. But don’t think for a moment that Patrul Rinpoche, even though he was free of entanglements, had even a trace of indifference! He was known as a loyal and kind friend, a compassionate friend, who dedicated his life solely to benefiting others. Because he was able to see the greater potential of the human mind’s ability to awaken, he spent his entire life expounding the teachings with great care and tenderness. Through his wisdom and compassion, he was able to preserve his independence and serve others, perfecting his own mind through the jewel of bodhicitta (“enlightened heart”). On the relative level, bodhicitta has two aspects: aspiration bodhicitta, which is the wish to attain enlightenment in order to bring all living beings to liberation; and engaged bodhicitta, which includes such practices as generosity and patience. On the absolute level, bodhicitta is insight into the nature of all phenomena.

Wisdom and compassion are the two components of bodhicitta. When we begin to discover the mind’s natural potential and strength, we are cultivating wisdom. This doesn’t mean we become hard-hearted and indifferent. It doesn’t mean we have to cut our family ties, quit our job, or live in a cave. It simply means we refuse to give in to lenchak because we see that it doesn’t serve us and that it makes it impossible for us to serve others. We recognise lenchak, and we can “just say no”! We can see it as a form of civil disobedience — a nonviolent approach in which we refuse to succumb to our own and others’ ignorance. When we can reclaim our nose ring, we are left with no real reason to resent others. With a mind free from lenchak, we have a lot of room to expand the heart through serving others. This is how wisdom can protect us so that we can be soft and caring. This is the Bodhisattva’s way.

In the sutras, it says that a Bodhisattva is like an immaculate lotus that floats on muddy water. The lotus is a metaphor for the Bodhisattva, who engages the world of confusion in order to serve beings. But how is it that the bodhisattva stays afloat without sinking into the muddy water of confusion? It is due to the wisdom of knowing the mind — how it can serve us or how, if left unchecked, it can spin in the direction determined by confusion. This kind of clarity may seem a long way off for us, but it all begins with rising to the occasion of our lives and facing our minds. We need to think clearly about this. Since this is our life, we must find some determination to rise to it in a way that supports our aims. Once we taste the freedom that comes with independence, it gets easier. We realise how much we have lost by desperately holding on, and we know how much there is to gain through disengaging from confusion. We can do this while expanding our most precious qualities: our good heart and our compassion for others. Through our innate qualities of wisdom and compassion, we can burn the seeds of lenchak once and for all, ensuring benefit for both self and others. This knowledge has been of great personal value to me in my life as a teacher, householder, and friend. I hope that it serves you well, too.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche 53.

In the morning we see that the sun is shining. When we see the light coming from the shoulder of the eastern mountain, are we the agent responsible for making sure that the sun rises on time? No. In the same way, we don’t have to take care of this enlightenment business anymore. In that place of no more searching, we are totally resting without even the slightest sense of exertion. Then, believe it or not, enlightenment shines. Conditioned mind drops away without really making a big fuss once we know how to let liberation come to us by simply resting, deeply resting.

— Anam Thubten Rinpoche

Anam Thubten 18.

It is said that if you do not meditate, you will not gain certainty; If you do, you will. But what sort of certainty? If you meditate with a strong, joyful endeavour, signs will appear showing that you have become used to staying in your nature. The fierce, tight clinging from dualistically experiencing phenomena will gradually loosen up, and your obsession with happiness and suffering, hopes and fears, and so on, will slowly weaken. Your devotion to the teacher and your sincere trust in his instructions will grow. After a time, your tense, dualistic attitudes will evaporate and you will get to the point where gold and pebbles, food and filth, gods and demons, virtue and non-virtue, are all the same for you — you will be at a loss to choose between paradise and hell! But until you reach that point (while you are still caught in the experiences of dualistic perception), virtue and non-virtue, buddha fields and hells, happiness and pain, actions and their results — all of this is reality for you.

— His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche

Dudjom Rinpoche 21.

All beings have the potential to become Buddhas, for all of our minds are innately pure. At the present, they are clouded by disturbing attitudes and negative emotions (klesa) and contaminated actions (karma). Through constant practice, we can remove these defilements from our mindstreams and nourish the seeds of the beautiful potentials we have. Thus each of us can become a Buddha when this process of purification and growth is completed.

— Venerable Thubten Chodron

Thubten Chodron 14.

Calm Abiding
by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

There are many methods for creating a mind that is one-pointed and joyful, the most important of which is meditation. The Buddhist tradition offers a multitude of diverse meditations. It is said the Buddha taught eighty-four thousand gates of samadhi [one-pointed concentration]. We first meditate on calm abiding [shamatha], as it is indispensable and easiest for those who are beginning to practice.

In order to practice calm abiding, we need to know its characteristics, its essential nature, and its various categories. Unless we know these things, we will not know how to meditate. First, we take a posture that is different from our normal one: The legs are crossed; the hands rest relaxed on the knees or with the right hand on top of the left, thumbs touching at the level of the navel; the elbows are slightly raised away from the rib cage; the spine is lengthened; the chin is slightly tucked in; the mouth is closed and slightly relaxed with the tip of the tongue touching the palate; the gaze rests about eight finger-widths in front of the nose. A straight posture helps to keep a stable centre while we are focusing on the mind, and for this reason, it is important. If our posture is good, calm abiding will go well.

Generally, calm abiding is defined in this way: “Relying on a correct referent, the mind rests one-pointedly.” It can be divided into three ways of meditating: placing the mind using a support, placing the mind without using a support, and placing the mind on the essential nature itself.

When using an external support or object, we place an article in front of our eyes — for example, a flower. By focusing one-pointedly on it, we keep numerous concepts from forming and revolving in our mind. This practice of focusing one-pointedly on an ordinary object is called “calm abiding with an impure external support.” When we focus in the same way on an object that is related to the dharma — a statue or image of the Buddha, a dharma text, and so forth — that is known as “calm abiding with a pure external support.”

When we have become familiar with these first practices and our mind can rest without moving from its object, then we can start the second type of calm abiding, which is without a support. Here, we turn our focus inward and bring to mind an image of the Buddha. If we begin this second practice before we can do the basic one, it will be difficult, since here there is no external object to serve as a referent. With our mind unable to remain focused, concepts will crowd in. So practice the first meditation until it goes very well, and then move on to the second.

The third kind of calm abiding is placing the mind on the essential nature itself. Here, there is neither an external nor an internal support. With our mind staying very focused, we meditate free of concepts, which is the highest level of calm abiding meditation.

Mastery of the two earlier practices allows this one to be stable. When our mind is undisturbed by any concept that might arise, the natural joy and clarity of the mind will dawn. When we have this experience of calm abiding, we will appreciate its great value.

Many ways of placing the mind have been taught by the great lamas. They have taught, for example, that we should not run after the past, not call the future to us, and not be moved by the thought present in our minds now. We should remain completely focused on our reference point, abiding within the essential nature. When we become accustomed to this through study and practice, various meditative experiences will arise. The sutras and the tantras give many explanations of these, which can be condensed into five.

The first is known as the experience of movement. When we first begin practising calm abiding, it seems that our afflictions multiply and our concepts increase. Is this a fault? No, this happens because now that we are practising calm abiding, we begin to see all the afflictions and concepts in our mind. It is not that the practice has created more of them; by simply looking into our mind, we are noticing what was already there. The onrush of powerful concepts and afflictions is compared to a turbulent river plunging through a gorge.

The second stage of calm abiding is known as attainment. Now concepts have decreased a little and the afflictions are somewhat reduced. Our experience, however, is not yet stable: Sometimes we have an onrush of concepts and afflictions, and sometimes we are freer of them. They are not constant as in the first stage; their appearances come more slowly. At this point, the river has exited the gorge and flows more slowly in a wider bed. The third stage refers to the experience of familiarisation. Here afflictions and concepts do arise, but not with the force they had before. The feeling of an onrush has subsided, and the river moves leisurely along its course.

Having practised the first three stages, we come to the fourth, the experience of stability, where our practice of calm abiding has become constant: a vast ocean unmoved by waves. Within this wide expanse, the waves of concepts and afflictions have been stilled.

The fifth stage is known as the experience of complete stability. When we have become completely familiar with the practice of calm abiding, not only do we attain true stability, we also begin to have a slight experience of the clear, radiant aspect of the mind. The example here is an ocean that is not only free of waves but also clear and transparent. At this fifth stage, in addition to a steady mind, the clear and cognisant aspect of its ultimate nature starts to manifest. This is the fruition of the practice of calm abiding: temporary experiences of the clear, radiant nature of primordial wisdom, or the dharmata.

The Buddhist teachings move along a graduated path: first the stages of calm abiding and then the stages of deep insight. Through such gradual practices, lamas of the past gave birth to realisation in their mental continuum and discovered primordial wisdom. All the qualities that the great masters found, we can attain as well. It all depends on our own efforts, our diligence, our deeper knowing, and our correct motivation.

The special mark of Buddhism is that it goes beyond study and reflection to emphasise meditation. In Buddhism, we study and reflect on the dharma; and then, fully blending what we have understood with our mind, we practice resting evenly in meditation. In the beginning, a tree needs strong roots. Similarly, what is most important for meditation is calm abiding. For this reason, I have explained it for those of us who are practising meditation to help us find mental happiness and well-being. This is my great hope.

17th Karmapa 70.

Even in this world, and even now, there are said to be many hidden yogis or discreet yogis, called bepay naljor in Tibetan. It means those realised ones who are not generally recognised as great spiritual beings, but have deeply tasted the fruit of enlightenment and are living it. Perhaps they are anonymously doing their good works here among us right now.

— Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche (纽修堪仁波切蒋扬多杰) 18.

All my possessions, all that I enjoy, are like rainbows in the sky
Even their smallest parts have no essence — they don’t exist at all
So when I enjoy illusory pleasures, empty-appearing tea and beer
It’s time to rest in mind’s full moon — empty awareness, radiant clarity.

— Milarepa

Milarepa (米勒日巴) 62.

Fools who take no interest in this meaning
Are always swept away by the river of samsara.
The sufferings of the lower realms are inexhaustible — pity the fools!
You who want to be freed from inexhaustible suffering, follow a wise guru.
When blessings enter your heart, your mind will be freed.

— Tilopa

Tilopa (帝洛巴) 1.

Let him be cordial in his ways and refined in conduct; filled thereby with joy, he will make an end of ill.

— The Buddha

Buddha 765.

The merit of praising the guru is equal to offering to the Buddhas. Through praising the masters, may all beings serve spiritual friends.

— Marpa

Marpa 9.