Working With Karma
by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche

Karma is a very complicated topic in one sense, as we have seen, and yet we do not wish to become more confused than we already are. We need to appreciate its workings at a relatively simple and pragmatic level as well. In terms of prioritising our actions, should we decide to work with our karma, we first focus on reducing negative karma. We refrain from certain actions, the actions we have identified as most harmful. We pay no attention to trying to do positive things; we forget about trying to “save lives”; we just try not to do our worst. The avoidance of negative actions is enough initially, before moving on to more positive initiatives. We need to feel clear of not having to actively avoid bad acts. The idea, simply enough, is that it is more helpful to focus on what we can achieve rather than struggle unprofitably with a problem that overwhelms us and will in itself become more burdensome if handled incorrectly. Approaching things with a very punitive attitude might be an example of such an unskillful approach, where castigating ourselves continually, thinking “I should be doing this, and I can’t; why can’t I do this?” just gets us more and more upset. Instead, we put aside the more ambitious projects and focus on what can be done, and in undertaking things this way, we see much more clearly the various things that we can do to continue to improve the situation. Letting go of the things we cannot immediately attain itself creates very positive karma. Immediately there is a cumulative response, as we are no longer simply thinking about avoiding acts that result in negative karma but are generating good karma, which has the power to further diminish the negative karma, almost automatically.

When we start to think about things in a positive light, the habits we attract at this point are not habit-forming in the strict sense of the word. Bad habits, however, become habits in a very precise sense — they narrow the scope of perspective and are extremely predictable. Good habits, in contrast, do not lead us to do the same thing over and over. When we are helpful to people, for example, we suddenly become ingenious about the ways we go about things, from a spontaneous verbal encouragement to someone in despair, to giving some financial assistance. Negative frames of mind, though, produce the opposite — very predictable results. The same words are used the same expressions and gestures. Everyone knows what will be said. When we are in a positive mood and a positive way of being, we want to interact, and so we engage and pick up on what it is that needs doing. In this way, we become increasingly free.

This is why it is said in Buddhism that by creating good karma we can actually stop creating karma altogether. This notion is very poorly understood at present. People fail to appreciate the different qualities of bad and good karma, thinking that if we habituate ourselves to good karma, in preference to bad, it nevertheless still amounts to habituation. We are still going to get “stuck” doing good karma, and how are we to free ourselves from that? The fundamental reason why this can be done is that because good karma, done properly, created properly, is not habit-forming. It is not habit-forming because it is spontaneous, rising from a mentality where ego is not central. Habit-forming activities issue from ego-obsession, so when we rest the ego a little and bypass the “me, me, me” thinking, we become more outwardly directed and more outwardly engaged. A richness flows into this type of environment on many levels. All this relates back to Buddhism’s basic core, which is the problem of ego. It suggests that we are wearing an armour of egotism that holds us back from connecting with others, and likewise with ourselves. On a worldwide scale, then, bad karma is generated aplenty, and there is the tremendous difficulty associated with generating good karma — for example, being engaged, being helpful, displaying our potentialities.

Buddhist ethics and morality are based on our human nature. Our nature is one of tremendous potentiality, but a potentiality seldom explored. Due to our habits, we have done almost every conceivable thing except take full advantage of our potentiality. In fact, we have achieved the opposite, firmly putting a lid on our potential. The further we traverse this path, the more we suppress the near primal urge for awakening. Mahayana Buddhism presents this aspect in the idea of buddha nature. In the Mahayanottaratantra, where the notion is introduced, it states, “We have an urge to become awakened.” In that text, Asanga and Maitreya (Maitreya is supposed to be the author, but it is definitely Asanga who wrote the text) make it plain that even our vexation or suffering is a warning signal alerting us to our complacency. Therefore, if we are feeling mental or spiritual pain, we should heed that warning, as we heed our body when it is not doing very well. When we have bodily pain, here and there, we do not simply ignore it, thinking, “Oh, I can handle it.” By paying attention to such things, we will see that they are communicating to us that we should not be so comfortable with where we are at and that we are capable of much more. We can get more out of life than we are getting right now. That is the message of the Mahayanottaratantra.

In describing this tremendous potentiality available to us, the metaphor of wealth is commonly employed in Mahayana teachings. Wealth is described in a variety of ways, including material wealth, which is not discouraged at all, if one looks closely at Mahayana texts. More importantly, though, wealth is related to internal wealth, which comes from the cultivation of positive thoughts, positive emotions, positive feelings, and from engaging in wholesome activities and in doing things that bring us genuine satisfaction. A life led with real satisfaction is far more pleasurable and enjoyable than one lived without such a feeling. A life lived without satisfaction and pleasure lacks enrichment.

Hence, Buddhist iconography — the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the thangkas, for example — is laden with jewels, ornaments, bracelets, anklets, and necklaces. Male and female Bodhisattvas wear jewellery and come in all shapes and forms. We are meant to view this display with a sense of enrichment. Curiously, the more enriched we feel, the less attached to things we are. The more poverty-stricken we feel, the more that clinginess and neediness gnaw away at us. The more enriched we feel, the less needy and grasping our outlook, because we already feel rich. This approach to our lives will carry into the next life and will continue to enrich subsequent lives. In fact, if we feel enriched, we invariably attract richness at a multitude of levels. Even at a mundane level, we attract friends and success, and some wealth, and so on. The Mahayana Buddhist teachings actually go further and state that if we are able to be properly patient in this life, in the next we will be born as a very attractive person, or if we practice generosity, we will be born very wealthy in a subsequent life. Whether we take such information completely literally or not is not all that important. The rudimentary logic of karma and Buddhist practice remains.

Buddha’s idea of karma was infinitely complex, and he strove to avoid any type of mechanical interpretation. Whenever we have a new thought or feeling, it latches on to a preexisting pattern in a number of diverse systems, sending a ripple effect throughout. There are many kinds of networks operating simultaneously in our psychophysical system at any given time. This is really the Buddhist view. In our normal fragmented state, these things are operating at cross-purposes. So when we learn about creating positive and wholesome karma and so forth, we begin to learn how to bring all these different networks together into a harmonious operation. However, doing this is difficult for most people since according to Buddhist teachings, we generally have very little willpower, which is why karma is created, especially negative karma, due to weakness in our character. We act mostly out of ignorance, and therefore, most of what we do is done without knowing the full implications of our acts. This is a sign of moral failure rather than moral wrongness.

If we had full cognisance of what we are doing and we still went ahead, that would be a very different matter than acting without knowing any better. Normally, we are fumbling about in this sense, groping in the dark. The proper cultivation of karma is to clear out some of the cobwebs and reconnect with the highly complex network of karmic imprints and effects, and in doing so, discover a more unified perspective on our life. Until then, we will be pulled this way and that, which is actually called le lung in Tibetan, “the blowing of karma.” It is as if someone or something was pushing us. There is nothing wrong with thoughts, emotions, and feelings, but particular varieties have the capacity to disrupt our balance and confuse our minds, rendering us incapable of fully appreciating what is going on. The Buddha stated that when we think very clearly, there is no disruption of the mind. Cultivating ourselves karmically is thus synonymous with strengthening our character and building ourselves up. On the surface of things, it seems ironical that Buddhism, which teaches a selfless agent, should recommend learning to be strong, resolute, and almost wilful, but it is a matter of establishing balance, a counter to our habit of fixation. It is lack of will, according to the Buddha, that leaves us vulnerable to all manner of things, both inner conflicts and outer negative influences.

Fixation on the self leads to all manner of undesirable behaviours and outcomes. It leads to the path of self-destruction because we choose to think things that are clearly unhelpful, harbour feelings we should not, and arrange activities that are clearly misguided. Fixation breaks us down and does not in fact make us stronger at all. In Buddhist literature, there is the image of the weary traveller in samsara. When we come into this world, we have no fixed abode — samsara is not a place where we can just settle in and hang up our hat, calling it home and taking it easy. Rather, as soon as we come into this world, we are compelled to keep moving. There is no stopping, which is why the term “migrating sentient creatures” is used. All sentient beings are migrating in this way, travelling on and on, getting beaten down as life experiences accumulate and the burdens they carry get heavier — but we must go on, though it gets harder the longer it goes on. Eventually, as the Buddha said, we are completely exhausted and weakened through all the fighting and conflict. In this panoramic context of weariness, it is ethical cultivation that allows us to rejuvenate, to replenish our depleted resources. In our negative state of being, we are continually spending — spending and spending, running into debt — whereas when engaged in karmic cultivation, we are accumulating and accumulating. Mahayana Buddhism stipulates that there are two accumulations: the accumulation of merit and the accumulation of wisdom. When we are accumulating, we are not spending. When we are not cultivating ourselves, we are over-spending, going into deficit, and there is a penalty involved in this, unfortunately.

When we enrich ourselves, our sense of selfhood blossoms. In other words, we have to become what we want to become. We have the opportunity and the ability to become what we want to become. This is what the accumulation of wisdom and merit amounts to. If we have a good thought, that is meritorious. If we have a good feeling, that is meritorious. If we use our limbs for a good purpose, that too is meritorious. We open doors with a sense of conscientiousness and wash the dishes with a sense of care and respect — not just clanging them around, cursing our partner for leaving them. If we have a good thought, even about ourselves, thinking, “I’m not a bad person after all,” and if someone does us a little favour, however meagre, we are appreciative. All this is meritorious.

By paying attention to all the things that we can pay attention to straight away, we come to know what it is that we need to do to become the kind of person we want to become. If we can think the kind of things we should be thinking, feel the kind of things we should be feeling, and if we have the emotional repertoire we need to flourish and live well, to lead the good life in the true sense of the word, then what more is needed? If we feel satisfied and fulfilled, then we don’t need anything more. That is the aim of life. We can even secure nirvana, enlightenment, liberation, through these means. Contrary to what many people believe, the Buddha was not really interested in dispelling all illusions or stripping away all we are familiar with, in order to make contact with some indescribable mysterious reality. Rather, he advised us to jettison certain aspects of ourselves that weigh us down. We should unburden ourselves. On the other hand, we should acquire things worth accumulating. An analogy might be emptying our house of junk and replacing it with a few nice pieces of furniture, which allows us to enjoy our surroundings in peace, with a sense of harmony. Instead of accumulating the clutter of a hoarder, a house with all sorts of rubbish that we refuse to relinquish, clinging to the most ludicrous things, like an empty can, as a treasure we sincerely cherish, we learn to prioritise. In our normal mode of creating negative karma, we are in fact accumulating junk, both literal and figurative, and we are finding refuge in the midst of a rubbish heap. Ethical cultivation is akin to embarking on a big cleanup job, getting rid of all this stuff, and then selectively acquiring some choice things worth keeping, rather than any odd thing.

Similarly, we try to let go of unnecessary thoughts, excessive thoughts. We try to calm down a little and reduce the extent to which we indulge in things. We encourage feelings that are comforting and wholesome and try not to dwell too much on negative feelings. Of course, being sentient creatures, living in ignorance, it cannot be expected that we will not indulge in any kind of negative thoughts or sentiment, but nevertheless, we try to minimise and let them go as quickly as possible. We don’t “harp” on it, or talk too much about it, which only reinforces the conviction, waters the seed: “Oh, I can’t handle this; it’s just too much; my life is a mess.” In this fashion, we only make sure of the mess we live in. Beating ourselves down like this only reinforces our negative karmic patterns, which have rippling effects in every quarter of our lives — personal, professional, interpersonal, and so on.

Therefore karma is not to be thought of as a burden we carry around, or as a kind of moralism where things are clear-cut, with good people here and bad people over there, and where good and bad actions are absolutely distinct and separate. This is definitely not the way to think of karma since what is wholesome is cultivated in relation to what is unwholesome, and vice versa. Good karma and bad karma are thereby in intimate relationship, and it is not the case that good karma can be cultivated independently of bad karma. One cannot have good thoughts without also having bad thoughts. It has been said many times in the Buddhist teachings that sunlight cannot dispel the darkness if there is no darkness. What we have to become is no different to what we are becoming. We cannot say, “I don’t want to be such and such a person,” if we are already acting like that person. Conversely, we cannot say, “I want to be such and such a person,” if we are doing nothing to become that kind of person. We have to make a start now, and then we begin to become that person. No one suddenly becomes a guitarist; we have to pick up the guitar, take some lessons, and start learning to play it.

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche 37.

As you begin to understand this predicament, you may start entertaining various solutions to it in your mind, thinking that perhaps you should retreat to a secluded place where you would be free of the objects that arouse aggressive and jealous tendencies. But this would not solve the problem. These conflicting emotions are mental patterns, and even if we go to a place of seclusion, we are going to take these habits with us. And just as we usually do, we will then open up a world of speculation (What went wrong in the past? What good or bad things might happen in the future?) and create a mental world that will become the basis for further intensification and amplification of these conflicting emotions.

— Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche 8.

I, Yeshe Tsogyal, am the sovereign of cyclic existence and its transcendence. If you recognise me, I live in the minds of all beings; I emanate as the natural elements and sense-fields, And I emanate further through the twelve links of dependent origination.

— Yeshe Tsogyal

Yeshe Tsogyal 13.










The Obstacles to Happiness
by His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, Jigme Pema Wangchen

If there are so many benefits to being happy, why do we struggle with happiness? What are the obstacles that come between us and our happiness, that stop us from being our true, authentic, kind, generous and fulfilled selves? Where do they come from?

We cannot control the things that happen to us or outside of us: if we do not have enough money to keep a roof over our heads or food on the table, then our happiness will be affected; other people may harm or try to harm us, or we may become ill or injured in an accident and experience great pain.

There is a great deal, however, that is in our own hands when it comes to happiness and living the life that we know we want to when we listen to our hearts. The life we have is so precious, and each of us has so many things to contribute. So why do we bury ourselves under the mental weight of expectations, worries and misunderstandings, creating disharmony within ourselves and with others, making ourselves unhappy in the long run? How do these ‘happiness obstacles’ build up over time? Why are we so often our own worst enemy?

It is the barriers we create in our minds that get in between ourselves and our happiness; they are like invisible walls constructed from our fears, our impatience, jealousies, anger and all the opinions and ideas that we cling to for our sense of identity. We want and expect things to be a certain way – so much so that sometimes we ruin our chances for happiness before we have even begun. Or we fit our minds into a mould of what we think is ‘right’, becoming too solid, too inflexible. We weigh down our happiness and close up our minds, rather than letting them float and wander around freely so that they might open up to many inspiring new ideas and ways of seeing.


It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are
or what you are doing that makes you happy or
unhappy. It is what you think about it. DALE CARNEGIE

Before we can truly begin to cultivate a happy state of mind, we need to understand the source of our suffering, the obstacles that come up between us and our happiness. It may be surprising, but when we begin to think through the things that we believe take away our happiness, it is possible to see how all suffering stems from the mind.

Of course, with physical pain, there is a sensation in the body which can be very intense. There is no questioning that pain feels very real. However, even with physical pain, the level of suffering we experience comes from within our minds – how we cope with it, how we react to it on an emotional level.

Likewise, when we lose a loved one, grief and sadness will become our companions for a time while we heal from the pain of the loss. But it is through this type of suffering that we are able to truly understand our joy and happiness too. We are reminded of the preciousness of life, how important it is to live for each day, to embrace the present, rather than living in the past or constantly being anxious about the future. Our grief shows us how much we love and how much we care; it is then up to us whether we hold on to that grief for too long, undermining our happiness and keeping us trapped in a very dark place or whether we have the courage to let our grief and sadness go.


So many people believe that if only they can achieve a particular goal – losing a certain amount of weight, perhaps, or getting top marks in an exam – they will be happy. Or they might think that if they can endure their job for now, it will bring them happiness through the money they can spend in retirement or through the security of knowing they can repay their mortgage. People are taught this way of thinking – of putting off happiness or imposing certain conditions upon it. But when we place conditions on happiness we are really limiting ourselves. What if we don’t lose that weight or we don’t get top marks? Does it really make a difference to who we are and should these conditions stop us from being happy? We don’t deserve to be happy – happiness is our nature, it is part of us, not an exchange. So don’t put your happiness in a box marked ‘only for special occasions’.


When I teach, I talk a great deal about expectations, and how they have become an epidemic that is putting off happiness for people all over the world. Expectations are considered by many to be a very good thing – they help people to strive for success, to make a good living for themselves and their families and to reach great heights. From my point of view, however, expectations are related to being overly outcome-driven, so again, it is a matter of creating a list of conditions or goals that have to be met before we can really say we have ‘made it’ and allow ourselves to be happy; and when we don’t reach all our goals we feel disappointed.

If you can practise being intention-driven, then you do not rely on one particular outcome, so long as you have tried your best. When you place too much emphasis on outcomes, you are too attached to an imagined future. If you focus on your intentions, you become more present – what matters is what you are doing right now. Your intentions are based on your values, they are connected with your heart. This isn’t to say that you abandon all goals, for example, goals like gaining an educational degree or a promotion at work can be very helpful in encouraging ourselves to grow and fulfil our potential, but that you put the emphasis on your intention, why you want to do these things, rather than being attached to specific outcomes. The irony is that the more you concentrate on your intentions and values, the more effective you become at fulfilling your goals, too, because what you do during the day becomes aligned with your purpose. Happiness becomes the journey, not the destination.

Here is an example. In the morning you may set your goals for the day, such as spending more time with your family or getting through your ‘to do’ list at work. And then at the end of the day, you become disappointed as you realise there are still so many things you wanted to do but weren’t able to. If you focus on your intentions, instead, you may begin the day with a simple desire to express your appreciation for the people close to you and to make the most of the day. You focus on what you do, rather than worrying about what you haven’t done. A moment spent with your loved ones might be fleeting but counts for so much because you are right there, happy in their presence. It’s a change in your perspective.

You can also be a much more flexible person in this way, open to all the possibilities of an uncertain future. Expectations come with the potential for much disappointment, whereas intentions simply get you into a good frame of mind, from which anything might happen and you no longer need to feel attached to one specific outcome. Life rarely goes according to plan, so why make a trap for your own happiness by placing the burden of expectation on it?


One of the biggest obstacles to happiness is when there is a disconnect between what we know in our hearts is the right thing for us to do and what we actually do. It is not always easy to match up our purpose with how we think, speak and act, but the more we can do this, the more productive and connected we will be.

Many people feel that they would be much happier if they could strike the right balance between work and life. Sometimes I think we forget that work is life, rather than being something separate that we put up with so that we can have a comfortable life the rest of the time. How people feel at work becomes a barometer for happiness, a roller coaster of good and bad days with so many potential saboteurs, from bosses to feeling the weight of responsibility, to things going wrong or feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

If you ever feel that you have somehow lost your way, or you are not sure which direction to take, meditation and mindfulness can help you to see beneath the choppy surface to the clarity within. Have the courage to keep going and bring your attention right into the present moment to look around you and see what is really going on in your life. Resolve to sweep away your doubts and uncertainties and grab today for all it’s worth.


Our mental habits have a way of getting in between us and our happiness, especially if we are unaware of their strength. Over time we develop patterns in how we react to situations or people – we feel crushed by criticism, angered by people who bump into us, for example. We might wish we could react differently, but our habits are so entrenched that we fall back on them without thinking. We seem to follow the same negative patterns of thinking and behaving over and over again, and we’re not sure how to break the cycle.

By bringing our attention to the present moment we can see those habits and patterns as they happen and understand what triggers them; by developing self-awareness we can choose not to follow the same old ways of thinking and strike out on a new path.


Anger and its relations – such as frustration, impatience, intolerance, shame and guilt – are very corrosive to our state of mind. They cause us pain in the moment because they literally burn us, and when we react very suddenly or without thinking, we may lash out with words that act like arrows directed at other people, objects or situations.

Unnecessary mental sufferings such as doubt, desire and greed take up so much precious space in the mind and can even make us small-minded. They also cause distance and separation; we want to get away from a person or situation we don’t like, or from ourselves. We may even take something that is happening in the moment and project it as a universal truth that is never going to change: I’m always going to be alone; I will never be happy like this.

When we are angry, we can’t see straight and we make rash interpretations and associations. If we are not careful of the anger that arises at the moment, it can become a more general anger towards life. Similarly, the other emotions related to it can become habitual, so that we may tend towards comparison and jealousy or being suspicious of the intentions of others. This leaves very little room for joy and happiness in our thoughts and our hearts.

This is why it is so important to become more aware of and friendly with all our emotions; to explore the source of any negative emotions or feelings and to practise their antidotes – patience, appreciation and acceptance. An angry or jealous mind can never be happy, so for the sake of ourselves and those around us we need to understand our emotions and learn how to let them go.


In our teachings, we talk a great deal about ‘grasping attachments’ and impermanence. The ego is a collection of all the stories and beliefs we have been told and have told ourselves about who we are over the course of our lives. When we become too attached to this identity, we limit ourselves and, as a consequence, we put limitations and conditions on our perception of happiness. And just as we cling to our egos, our egos cling to possessions and opinions in an attempt to feel secure. This creates an underlying sense of fear – fear that we might turn out to be ‘wrong’, fear that we might become losers in some way, fear of what others think of us.

If you are unhappy with yourself, then that is because you haven’t got to know your true self. You only know your ego, which right now is doing you a disservice and trapping you in unhappiness. The things that you do not like in your personality or about your actions are not you; and although it might seem impossible when you are consumed by feeling bad about yourself, you can begin to gently break free from the bonds of these labels. By taking care of your mind, you can transform your thoughts and your actions. In other words, you can transform your life.


If you feel you are unhappy because of how people are treating you, the first thing to realise is that whatever others may say or do, you still have some degree of control over your reactions. If your happiness is within, then you don’t have to let external conditions have such a hold over it. Sometimes our perception of intention – behind harmful words especially – is entirely different from or an exaggeration of what someone else was thinking.

There may be times when it does seem as though someone truly wants to upset or harm you with their words or actions. It is very hard for this not to affect your sense of happiness, but it may help to understand that their motivation for engaging in harmful words or deeds says everything about them and nothing about you.

Although directed at you like a poisoned arrow, they have nothing to do with who you are, stemming rather from the person’s own misunderstandings about who they are. Contemplating and understanding this may help to reduce your sense of suffering and to see that other people don’t need to become a fixed obstacle to your happiness. You may focus instead on all the positive relationships and connections in your life and nourish them with your happiness.


We feel our fears and anxieties in our bodies; they are obstacles to happiness that sit in the pit of our stomachs or make our whole being feel agitated and uncomfortable. Fear in itself is not the problem here though; our fears are some of the best signposts towards growth, towards doing what we really want to do and being who we want to be. It is when you let fear and uncertainty about what may (or may not) happen to fester, rather than facing them, that they can get in the way, between you and your happiness. Your ego will cling on to fear, but your true nature is fearless and free. You just have to peel back the layers, look directly into your heart and see the courage and confidence that lie within.

If you feel unhappy because of the situation you find yourself in, you can begin to explore the feelings it brings up for you and see if you can look at them – and the situation itself – from different angles, rather than believing them to be only a source of unhappiness.

When it comes down to it, no matter how many self-beliefs, circumstances or people we feel are lessening our happiness, we do have a choice when it comes to how we cope or deal with them in our minds. Do we hang on to frustration experienced during a morning meeting all day, so that we end up taking it home with us? Do we always take on the blame or responsibility for situations when they could easily be shared? Do we even worry a little about letting ourselves be happy, fearful that we might hurt so much more if it is then taken away from us?

We human beings seem to find complication and even suffering to a degree easier to deal with than happiness: it is easier to complain than to celebrate; it is easier to list what we didn’t get done today than to acknowledge everything we accomplished. We wrap ourselves up in expectations and ideas about how we think things should be, and we worry that contentment and peace will bring laziness.

I believe it is time you freed your mind and let happiness back in – it’s been waiting patiently for you to open the door for long enough. The happier you allow yourself to be today the happier you’ll be tomorrow and for the rest of your life.

Gyalwang Drukpa 35.

The great perfection is the experience of the nature of emptiness, its radiant clarity, and its unobstructed compassion. When you sit in meditation, in the equipoise of the nature of the mind, that inexpressible, utterly open essence is emptiness. The measure of its radiant, natural clarity is the quality, and the nature of that quality is unobstructed compassion.

These three – emptiness, natural clarity, and unobstructed compassion – are the nature of the mind.

In the practice of dzogchen one must remain, naturally relaxed, in the uncontrived awareness. Simply remain in the equipoise of the nature of emptiness free from elaborations, limitations, or the conceptualising intellect.

One simply remains totally relaxed, expecting nothing in that state.

At the precise moment that concepts dissipate, rigpa, pure awareness, is there, and that is it. There is no experience of rigpa other than that. When the mind has dissolved, and the experience of the primordial wisdom dharmakaya arises, this is rigpa.

— Yangthang Rinpoche

Yangthang Rinpoche 5.

The Body in Buddhism
by Anam Thubten Rinpoche

Our relationship with our body, in general, is unhealthy since our view toward it tends to be not only flawed but even negative in a way that can be harsh and unkind. Many organised religions have a reputation for being “anti-body.” In his book Walking Words, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (1940–2015) understood this problem clearly and summarised it in a poem that pointed out these unnatural and unhealthy attitudes toward the body that are prevalent in both religious and secular society:

The church says: the body is sin.
Science says: the body is a machine.
Advertising says: the body is business.
The body says: I am a fiesta.

There is a deep-seated misunderstanding that our body is mundane and impure, while our soul is pure and the essence of who we are, trapped in a prison of flesh and bone. Many spiritual traditions have introduced ascetic practices that appear to abuse the body. Even today, there are ascetics in India who engage in observances that neglect the body as meaningless, transitory, or unimportant.

In a sense, it is quite understandable why people have developed such negative views. The human body can seem like cumbersome baggage that suffers from numerous problems and ailments: pain, ageing, disease, and other unpleasant stuff that affect it every day. We can imagine that there would be no more complications from carnal lust or primeval urges if we simply existed as some kind of pure soul.

The Buddha himself tried extreme asceticism at the beginning of his search for the truth of existence. Later, he concluded that such practices are ultimately futile, and instead taught the Middle Way — a lifestyle free from the excesses of both sensual indulgence and asceticism. This is the path that monks and nuns are supposed to follow.

Nowadays, at least, it feels like we don’t have to worry about going around teaching Buddhists not to practice asceticism — that doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore! On the other hand, there are still religious practices that involve beating one’s body, extreme fasting, and all kinds of unhealthy forms of abstinence that are a means of self-inflicted denial or punishment.

The modern secular world is no more enlightened when it comes to the body, which it treats as an object that can be used for fulfilling all manner of desires. We study the body as some kind of mechanical object, the way an engineer studies a machine. When our car breaks down, we take it to a mechanic’s shop, where he or she will study it, component by component, to try to find what went wrong.

If the mechanic is very good at understanding the whole system that makes up an automobile, they will know how it’s supposed to run and what can go wrong. They might have a huge vocabulary describing the systems and parts of a car. Many of us, even after driving for decades, might know the names of few, if any, of the components that comprise our vehicle. Once the hood is open, there’s a lot going on that is hidden from our view or understanding.

In a similar way, when we get sick we will often visit a doctor, many of whom tend to treat the body as a soulless machine that can simply be observed in parts to determine what went wrong, and then attempt to fix the problem. As a result, people find hospitals to be some of the most sterile and colourless of environments, a reflection of our soulless attitude toward the body as a machine. Instead, hospitals should be uplifting and welcoming, to give patients a feeling of comfort and safety. Pleasant feelings of solace and enchantment can enhance and expedite the healing process.

Why don’t governments, individuals, or hospitals themselves provide the means to bring aesthetic beauty to our modern hospitals? As medical science progresses, we’re increasingly able to replace many non-functioning parts of the body with artificial substitutes. Such practices can even encourage the notion that the body is nothing more than a machine whose real purpose is to continue functioning ceaselessly.

Many wise people from the past understood this misconception and came up with more enlightened and informed outlooks toward the human body. Tantric Buddhists observe samaya — commitments or vows that include not abusing one’s own body, which is considered one of the 14 root downfalls. They also hold the attitude of understanding that the body is a mandala, a holy temple, and naturally sacred. When they eat, they often consecrate the food as a ganachakra or sacred feast. Eating itself becomes a ceremony of offering the feast to one’s body as the divine abode. This practice is described in a verse from one of Patrul Rinpoche’s (1808–1887) dohas:

When the great meditators consume,
Bless the food and drinks as a ganachakra,
One’s body is an assembly of peaceful and wrathful deities.
Consume while not being distracted away from the nature of mind.

People also often use the body as a pleasure centre. Not only do we enjoy the myriad pleasant sensations that arise in the body through our brain and nervous system, but we often use these sensual experiences as distractions to numb our own psychological pain, ranging from loneliness to anxiety. Likewise, food is increasingly used in the manner of an opioid rather than a sacred feast that sustains the body with an offering of pleasure and nourishment. This habit is driving many people toward food addiction, which in turn can cause enormous problems including obesity and other physical and mental health issues. Science has yet to fully address the psychological and physiological factors behind such problems, beyond identifying bare facts such as the leptin and sugar connection.

It’s time for us to bring the tantric view to the fore and to develop a sacred attitude toward the human body. This will help us overcome any unnecessary guilt and shame we may feel toward our bodies, regardless of how much they may be judged by society. One challenge we’re facing is how to introduce this concept in a world where the very concept of sacred is either rejected or has become twisted and distorted. If we don’t start with an understanding of the sacredness of the body, then embracing the world or anything sacred won’t come easily.

Anam Thubten 16.

Imperturbable when you remain in this state, you have no more need for meditation built to your bodies and your speech. Be on either or not in what we call true integration, you will have no need for forced meditation including antidotes. Without trying to accomplish whatever it is, you will find that everything that can arise is devoid of inherent nature. All appearances are spontaneously released in this open dimension and all thoughts are released spontaneously and while the great primordial cognition, it is the non-dual and perfect equality of the natural way. Like the current of a great river, the real meaning will be with you where you abide. It is the state of Buddhahood in motion, the great joy of being free from all samsaric objects.

— Maitripa

Maitripa 4.

In our lives, we may often make mistakes, often out of negligence, and sometimes even unknowingly. However, making mistakes is not useless — there is actually a lot that we can learn from our missteps if we reflect on them and use them as an opportunity to improve ourselves. Of course, it also depends on how we make our errors. If we are making mistakes out of carelessness, then we should simply take more care with our actions. However, if someone makes mistakes even when being careful, then this is a good chance to learn and improve oneself in the future. Firstly, mistakes give us opportunities to explore our own shortcomings. Having recognised our shortcomings, we can then become more conscientious of our actions in the future. Finally, we can acquire the knowledge of correctly distinguishing between what is right and what is wrong. Making the same mistakes again and again will lead us nowhere, but proper reflection on our mistakes and changing our behaviour as a result can lead us to better prospects. Sometimes we might think that it is easy to judge others and pretend to know others very well. However, knowing the true personality of others is difficult because what we are able to see from appearances does not give us the total picture of a person. Even if we have known someone since we were young, it is still hard to learn everything about that individual as many characteristics may be hidden deep inside. Therefore, it would be really wise and safe from our side not to jump to conclusions.

— Zurmang Gharwang Rinpoche

Zurmang Gharwang Rinpoche 77.

Preparing to Die
by Andrew Holecek

Death is one of the most precious experiences in life. It is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The karma that brought us into this life is exhausted, leaving a temporar­ily clean slate, and the karma that will propel us into our next life has not yet crystallised. This leaves us in a unique “no-man’s-land,” a netherworld the Tibetans call bardo, where all kinds of possibilities can materialise. At this special time, with the help of skilful friends, we can make rapid spiritual progress and directly influence where we will take rebirth. We can even attain enlightenment.

Buddhist masters proclaim that because of this karmic gap, there are more opportunities for enlightenment in death than in life. Robert Thurman, a translator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, says, “The time of the between [bardo]… is the best time to attempt consciously to affect the causal process of evolution for the better. Our evolutionary momentum is temporarily fluid during the between, so we can gain or lose a lot of ground during its crises.”

But even for spiritual practitioners, death remains a dreaded event. We dread it because we don’t know much about it. We do not look forward to death because we don’t know what to look forward to. For most of us, death is still the great unknown. It is the ultimate blackout, something to be avoided at all costs. So we have a choice. We can either curse the dark­ness or turn on the light.

Death is not the time for hesitation or confusion. It is the time for confi­dent and compassionate action. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, “This is when people must do something for the person who has died; this is the most crucial time for the person.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead says, “This is the dividing line where buddhas and sentient beings are separated. It is said of this moment: in an instant, they are separated; in an instant, complete enlightenment.”

The moment of death, like that of birth, is our time of greatest need. The beginning and the end of life are characterised by vulnerability, bewil­derment, and rich opportunity. In both cases, we are stepping into new territory — the world of the living or the world of the dead. The person who is dying, and his or her caretakers, have an opportunity to create the conditions that will make the best of this priceless event.

Tibetan Buddhism is not the only Buddhist tradition that teaches the bardos, but it offers the most complete set of instructions for the bardos. The central orienting view in the Tibetan world is that of the three death bardos: the painful bardo of dying, the luminous bardo of dharmata, and the karmic bardo of becoming. The painful bardo of dying begins with the onset of a disease or condition that ends in death. In the case of sudden death, this bardo occurs in a flash. It is called “painful” because it hurts to let go. The luminous bardo of dharmata begins at the end of the bardo of dying. For most of us, it passes by unrecog­nised. Dharmata means “suchness” and refers to the nature of reality, the enlightened state. It is fantastically brilliant, hence “luminous.” It is so bright that it blinds us and we faint. We then wake up dazed in the karmic bardo of becom­ing. Suchness is gone, and confusion re-arises as karma returns to blow us into our next life.

While the Tibetan Buddhist tradition offers many helpful guidelines, they are not meant to restrict the sacred experience of death. The map is never the territory. Even though death and rebirth are described in extraordinary detail by the Tibetans, dying is never as tidy as the writ­ten word. It is important for the dying, and their caregivers, to study and prepare. But prepara­tion only goes so far. Fixating on the idea of a “good death” can paradoxically prevent one. If we think that our death will follow a prescribed order and that perfect preparation leads to a perfect death, we will constrict the wonder of a mysterious process.

Surrender is more important than control. A good death is defined by a complete openness to whatever arises. So don’t measure your death against any other, and don’t feel you have to die a certain way. Let your life, and your death, be your own. There are certain things in life that we just do our own way.

The vast literature about conscious dying is therefore both a blessing and a curse. At a certain point, we have to leap into death with a beginner’s mind and a spirit of adventure. Visions of the perfect death create expectations, a model that we feel we have to match. If experience doesn’t match expectation, we might panic: “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.” “I didn’t plan on it ending this way.” Death is about letting go. That includes letting go of any expectations. The dan­ger in learning too much about death is that we end up pre-packaging the experience, forcing real­ity into the straightjacket of our concepts.

The best approach is that of the middle way. Learn as much as you can. Study, practice, and prepare. Then drop everything and let this natu­ral process occur naturally. Throw away the map and fearlessly enter the territory. It’s like prepar­ing for a big trip. We want to pack properly, review our checklists, and ensure that we have enough money and gas. But when the trip starts, we just enjoy it. We don’t worry about doing it perfectly. Some of our greatest travel adventures happen when we take a wrong turn or get lost. Having thoroughly prepared, we relax in know­ing we have everything we need.

Practices to Prepare You for Death


Two central themes are repeated throughout The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The first theme is “Do not be distracted.” This relates to shamatha, calm abiding meditation, which is the ability to rest your mind on whatever is happening. The stability gained through shamatha enables you to face any experience with confidence. In life, and especially in death, distraction is a big deal. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” Shamatha removes the misery.

Shamatha is a fundamental form of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a powerful preparation because as mindfulness matures into its more advanced levels, it does not disintegrate at death. If we cultivate proficiency in this one practice alone, it will act as a spiritual lifeline that we can hold on to during the bardos, and that will guide us through their perilous straits.

One of the best preparations for death is learning to accept it and to be fully present for it. Being fully present is the essence of mindfulness, which is developed through shamatha. Because death isn’t comfortable, it’s difficult to be with. As Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Most of us aren’t there for our deaths and there­fore make it more difficult. To get a feel for this, recall how hard it is to be fully present when you’re sick. Most of us just want out.

Even for an advanced practitioner, it can hurt when the life force separates from the body. Resistance to this hurt, to death, or to any unwanted event is what creates suffering. We can prepare to embrace the discomfort of death by embracing every moment with mindfulness now. Replace opposition with equanimity. As Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says, when we are a dying person, we should be a dying person fully. Don’t try to be a living person when living is not what’s happening.

Mindfulness is initially cultivated by practic­ing shamatha with form or referential shamatha. This type of shamatha uses the reference of the body, the breath, or an object to steady the mind. The idea is to use a stable form — while we still have one — as a way to stabilise the mind. When physical stability disappears at death, mental sta­bility becomes our primary refuge.

When we die, the anchor of the body is cut away and the mind is set free. If we’re not pre­pared for this freedom, we may panic. Imagine being tossed out of a rocket into outer space. The ensuing freak-out impels us to grasp at any­thing that can re-establish a sense of ground. Like catching ourselves just before taking a bad spill on a patch of ice, we reflexively reach out to grab on to anything that keeps us from falling. This grasping reflex can spur us to take on an unfortu­nate form — and therefore an unfortunate rebirth.

The fruition of shamatha is the ability to rest your mind on any object for as long as you wish and to do so without distraction. Wherever you plop your awareness it stays there, like a bean bag hitting the ground.

Shamatha with form develops into formless shamatha. This is the ability to rest your mind on whatever arises, not just a specified form. You take off the training wheels and ride smoothly on top of anything.

Formless, or non-referential, shamatha is important because when the body drops away at death, we no longer have any stable forms upon which to place our mindfulness. There’s noth­ing steady to refer to. At this groundless point, instead of mentally thrashing about trying to find a form to grasp, formless shamatha allows us to rest on any experience without being swept away. It’s not a problem if we don’t have a body to come back to. We simply place our minds on whatever is happening and gain stability from that. Formless shamatha is a lifesaver that keeps us from drown­ing in a bewildering ocean of experience.

The simplicity of mindfulness belies its profundity. It is the gateway to immortality. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “If by eternity is understood not endless temporal dura­tion but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present.”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Padmasambhava agree. They taught the four ways to relate to the experience of time, emphasising the fourth moment. The first three moments relate to the conventional experiences of past, present, and future. The fourth moment is timeless and there­fore immortal. It’s beyond the first three. The fourth moment is the immediate experience of the bardo of dharmata, which transcends time and space. We don’t have to die to experience the deathless dharmata. It lies quietly between each thought — not just between each life.

Even though it transcends the first three moments, the only way to enter the fourth moment is through the inlet of the present. Nowness, in other words, is the funnel into eternity. B.K.S. Iyengar, the modern yoga mas­ter, says, “The yogi learns to forget the past and takes no thought for the morrow. He lives in the eternal present.”

If you can’t see this in the gap between your thoughts, you can get a feel for it when you’re immersed in an activity. If you’re one hundred percent present, whether it’s playing with your kids, being at a great concert, or engrossed in work, time seems to stand still. You may come out of such an experience, look at the clock, and be startled by how much time has flown by.

This is a concordant experience of the fourth moment — the entry into the realm where time, and therefore you, disappear.

These magical states, akin to what psychologists call the state of “flow” and athletes refer to as the “zone,” don’t have to be accidental. The zone of the fourth moment can be cultivated by training the mind to be present. In this regard, as Zen teacher Baker Roshi puts it, mindfulness makes you “accident prone.” The more you practice mindfulness, the more you stumble into the zone. Those who achieve shamatha can rest their minds in meditative absorption, or samadhi, and taste immortality. They have tripped into the deathless zone of total presence.

Despite the complexity of the bardos, the meditations that prepare us for them don’t need to be complex. Simplicity and relaxation are two key instructions for the bardos. Don’t underesti­mate the power of mindfulness. The Indian mas­ter Naropa said, “Since the consciousness [in the bardo] has no support, it is difficult to stabilise mindful intention. But if one can maintain mind­fulness, traversing the path will be trouble-free. Meditating for one session in that intermediate state may be liberating.”


The second main theme in The Tibetan Book of the Dead is that “recognition and liberation are simultaneous.” This relates to vipashyana, the practice of insight meditation. Shamatha pacifies the mind; vipashyana allows us to see it. By seeing our mind more clearly, we’re able to recognise how it works. This helps us relate to it skilfully. In the bardos we’re “forced” to relate to our mind, simply because there’s nothing else. Outer world is gone, body is gone, so mind becomes reality. Through insight meditation we discover that whatever arises in the bardos is just the dis­play of our mind. That recognition sets us free.

Just as recognising that we’re dreaming while still in a dream (lucid dreaming) frees us from the suffering of the dream, recognising that we’re in the bardos frees us from the suffering of the bar­dos. Before we became lucid, the dream tossed us to and fro like Styrofoam bobbing on turbulent waters. But once we wake up to the dream — while still being in it — the tables are suddenly turned. We now have complete control over an experience that just controlled us. Whether in dream or death, this level of recognition and ensuing liberation is cultivated with vipashyana, or “clear seeing.”

Instead of taking the terrifying visions of the bardo to be real and getting caught in the result­ing nightmare, we can wake up in the bardos. We do this by recognising all the appearances to be the display of our own mind. This recognition is exercised in meditation. The meditation instruc­tion is to label whatever distracts us as “think­ing.” For example, a thought pops up of needing to buy some milk. We mentally say, “thinking,” which is recognising that we have strayed, then return to our meditation. Our clear seeing melts the distracting thought on contact. Labelling and liberation are simultaneous.

Unrecognised thought is the daytime equivalent of falling asleep. Each discursive thought is a mini-day dream. Drifting into mindless thinking is how we end up sleepwalking through life — and therefore death. Saying “thinking ” in our medi­tation is therefore the same as saying, “Wake up!” We wake up and come back to reality — not to our dreamy visions (thoughts) about it. If we can wake up during the day and be mindful, we will be able to wake up in the bardo after we die. This is what it means to become a buddha, an “awakened one.” And this is the fruition of shamatha-vipashyana.

Earlier we said that in the bardos, mind (thought) becomes reality. What do you come back to if there is only mind? You come back to just that recognition. As in a lucid dream, you realise that whatever arises is merely the play of your mind. This allows you to witness whatever appears without being carried away by it. Since you no longer have a body, or any other material object to take refuge in, you take refuge in rec­ognition (awareness) itself. From that awakened perspective, it doesn’t matter what happens. It’s all just the display of the mind.


Tonglen, which is the practice of taking in the suffering of others and giving out the goodness within ourselves, is a strong preparation for death. It is especially powerful for a dying per­son to practice and for others to do when some­one has died. The rugged quality of this practice can match the toughness of death. The more I’m around death, the more I find myself taking ref­uge in tonglen.

The reason we suffer during life, or death, is because we are selfish. When we think small, every little irritation gets big. Conversely, when we think big, difficulties get small. Tonglen is about thinking and feeling big. To think big, we should first reflect upon our good fortune. We have the precious dharma to guide us through the bardos, and we have the potential to transform death into enlightenment. We are incredibly fortunate to die held by the teachings of the Buddha, the awak­ened one who transcended death.

Now think about the millions who are dying without being held. Imagine all those who are dying alone, under violent conditions or with­out physical or spiritual refuge. We can reduce our anguish by putting our death in perspec­tive. Tonglen instils that perspective and brings greater meaning to our death.

If you take a teaspoon of salt and put it into a shot glass of water, the water is powerfully affected. It gets super salty. If you take the same amount of salt and put it into Lake Michigan, it has virtually no effect. Tonglen transforms our mind from a shot glass into Lake Michigan. On every level, suffering is the result of the mind’s inability to accommodate its experience. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says:

Try to die with this motivation. If you die with this bodhichitta thought, your death becomes a cause of your enlightenment and a cause for the enlightenment of all sentient beings. Live your life with this precious thought . . . . As you get closer to death, you should think, “I’m experiencing death on behalf of all sen­tient beings.” Try to die with this thought. In this way, you are dying for others. Dying with the thought of others is the best way to die.

— from Wholesome Fear, by Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Kathleen McDonald

The Indian sage Shantideva said, “If you want to be miserable, think only of yourself. If you want to be happy [even in death], think only of others.” Tonglen is therefore a way to practice the good heart of bodhichitta. When asked what practice he would do during death, Trungpa Rinpoche once replied, “Tonglen.”


Tonglen is part of a family of practices we could call “reverse meditations.” They are called reverse because with these practices we do things that are the opposite of what we usually associ­ate with meditation. Reverse meditations expand our sense of meditation and prepare us for death. They are based on the tenet that if you can bring unwanted experience into the sanctuary of sanity provided by meditation, you can transform that obstacle into opportunity. This approach applies to life and especially to death. If you can bring death onto the path, you can flip it into enlight­enment. The most unwanted experience trans­forms into the most coveted experience. Tonglen is a classic reverse meditation because it takes in the darkness of others and sends out our light. This is the reverse of how ego operates.

Pain meditation is a reverse meditation that prepares us for the painful bardo of dying. In addition to the emotional pain of letting go, there is often physical pain associated with disease. To prepare for this pain, we voluntarily bring it into our experience now, on our terms.

Reverse meditations are done within the con­text of shamatha meditation. This provides the crucible for establishing a proper relationship to the unwanted experience. For the pain medita­tion, after doing shamatha for a few minutes you can bite your lip or tongue, or dig your fingernail into your thumb, and explore the sensation. Go into the pain. What is pain? What is it made of? What happens if I dissolve into it? Reverse medi­tations are not pleasant. But neither is death. Do them for short sessions, and remember that mas­ochism is not the point.

While the pain may not disappear, the suffer­ing does. Pain meditation helps us erase what Trungpa Rinpoche called “negative negativity,” which is the resistance to the pain. Negative negativity is like being shot with two arrows. The first arrow hurts you physically. If you can stay with that pain and relate to it directly, it will still hurt, but not as much as when you bring in your storylines. The second arrow is the mental commentary that transforms simple pain into complex suffering.

By becoming one with the pain, there is no one to hurt. And the character of the pain changes. This practice radically alters our relationship to discomfort. It reverses it. The next time you get a headache, turn that pain into meditation. Watch the pain transform before your eyes.

Reverse meditations require diligence. We would rather sit in tranquillity than plunge into pain. But to establish a healthy relationship to unwanted experiences, we have to spend time with them. It’s always easier to do so on our own terms. We may think we’ll be able to relate to pain or death just by having read about it, but that attitude is seldom realised when we actually hurt or die.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says:

It is very difficult to transform an experience of intense suffering if we have no basis for work­ing with pain to begin with. Therefore, it is ini­tially necessary to work with minor pains and illnesses and discover how we can bring these to the path. Then, as more severe sicknesses come to us, we are able to bring those to the path as well. Eventually, we become capable of bringing even the most debilitat­ing conditions to the path.… If you become accustomed to looking at the experience of pain — if that looking is genuine and you can rest your mind in the pure sensation — then you will see a difference in how you experience the pain.… When a greater sickness strikes us, we will not be hit by it in the same way. It will not be such a problem or a shock. We can face even the pain and suffering of dying with greater confidence because we are facing familiar territory instead of the unknown. When the actual moment of death arrives, we will be able to look at that pain and transform it.

— from Mind Beyond Death, by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Having done this pain meditation for years, I now relate very differently to the sting of an insect bite or a stubbed toe. Instead of my knee-jerk aversion to pain, it almost becomes spiritual. My throb­bing toe reminds me to meditate, which alters the intensity of the pain. I’m begin­ning to bring pain onto my path.

Another reverse meditation is to cre­ate as many thoughts as possible. Instead of calming your mind down, whip it up. Again, start with shamatha, then make your mind as stormy as possible. Think of yesterday, think of tomorrow, visual­ise Paris, New York, or the pyramids. Do so as quickly as you can. Now is your chance to do what you always wanted to do on the meditation cushion: go hog wild mentally. This is particularly helpful for the karmic bardo of becoming, where the gales of karma rearise and blow us into our next life. By becoming familiar with those winds now, we’ll be able to sail in stormy seas later.

Notice that you can sit quietly in the centre of this voluntary cyclone and not be moved by it. You’re practising how to hold your seat in the midst of men­tal chaos. Don’t buy into the thoughts and emotions. Just watch the upheaval. This practice expands the sense of sha­matha because even though your mind is howling, you’re able to maintain inner peace. As the sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “It is disinterestedness that liberates.”

Do the meditation for a minute. Rest in shamatha, then do it again. Because reverse meditations are intense, short sessions prevent resentment. Don’t underestimate the power of short medi­tations. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says, “We usually view anything small as unimportant and not really worth doing. For example, if we only have five min­utes to meditate, we tell ourselves, ‘Oh, five minutes is nothing. It is not enough to change my life. I need to practice for at least an hour.’” But with meditation, short is sweet. It’s like running. You don’t start with a marathon. You start with short runs and work your way up. Short sessions repeated frequently are just as effective as longer sessions done infrequently, if not more so. And when it comes to mixing meditation and post-meditation, which is how to transform your life into meditation, short frequent sessions reign supreme.

Another meditation is to place your­self in a loud and overly stimulating envi­ronment, then work on staying centred. Flip on the television, crank up the ste­reo, turn on the alarm clock, and sit with the cacophony. Go to a loud and crazy place and meditate. If you have kids, this environment is already part of your life. One of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s sons once complained to him about how hard it is to meditate in Kathmandu because of all the noise and distraction. Rinpoche said to him, “If you can’t practice under these conditions, how will you ever prac­tice in the bardo?”

As with all reverse meditations, find the silence in the noise, the stillness in the motion. Even if you never do these meditations, just knowing about them helps you reverse your relationship to unwanted experiences. The next time you’re in a crazy environment, like a subway station or Times Square, you might remember these instructions and transform the mayhem into meditation.

I frequently travel to India, a land of intense chaos. Instead of getting irritated when the flies, heat, noise, beggars, and pollution assaults me, I try to relax into the pandemonium. I reverse my usual defensive approach to these unpleasant situations and bring them onto my path. There are times when I just can’t do it and run away. But even then, I remember the spirit of these strange meditations and try to convert my automatic aversion.

All the reverse meditations culminate in equanimity, which is the ability to relate to whatever arises without bias. At the highest stages of the path, one no longer has any preference for chaos or calm, samsara or nirvana. Everything is experi­enced evenly. Pleasant experiences are not cultivated; unpleasant ones are not shunned.

As we have seen, distraction is one of the biggest prob­lems in life and death. Therefore, one of the most important instructions is “do not be distracted.” The reverse medita­tions are a formidable way to end distraction because they bring distraction onto the path. They show us how to reverse our relationship to distraction. Instead of feeling that our meditation is constantly being interrupted — by a thought, a noise, or even life itself — the reverse meditations bring these interruptions into our practice. They become our practice. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche said that if you’re in retreat and hear a noise that makes you angry, it’s a sign that you’re unable to bring distraction onto your path.

Since fear is common in the bardos, Khenpo Rinpoche recommends watching horror movies as a way to work with it. This is a potent reverse meditation for all the bardos, but especially for the bardo of becoming. Because we don’t rec­ognise the appearances of this bardo to be projections of our mind, the farther we go into it the more terrifying it becomes. The fear becomes so piercing that it can force us to grasp an unfortunate rebirth just to escape the intensity of our own minds. Establishing a relationship to fear now helps us relate to it then and can prevent such a birth.

I find this reverse meditation really challenging. The films are wretched, violent, and extremely difficult to watch. I usu­ally have to look away, or pause the movie, to bring any sense of meditation to it. My normal response is tremendous revul­sion. But as contrived and almost silly as this practice appears, it does evoke a host of nasty feelings. It allows me to become familiar with the shadowy side of my being, a dark side that comes to light in the bardo of becoming. Horror movies give me the opportunity to befriend horrible feelings I would oth­erwise never encounter.

A key instruction in life or death is to join whatever we experience with meditation. But without actually practising this, it’s hard to do. An unwanted experience arises, habitual patterns immediately kick in, and we run from the experience or relate to it poorly. The reverse meditations allow us to replace these bad habits with good ones. When difficult situ­ations arise, wisdom kicks in instead of confusion.

Lotus 138.