Take a Hard Look

You might not think your practice has selfish motivations, says Bardor Tulku, but if you take a close look, you may be surprised by what you find.

Bardor Tulku Rinpoche
15 February 2013
bardor tulku rinpoche
Illustration by Lewis Hyde and Max Gimblett.

You might not think your practice has selfish motivations, says Bardor Tulku, but if you take a close look, you may be surprised by what you find.

No one has ever achieved buddhahood through selfishness. If it were possible to achieve buddhahood through a selfish motivation, then we would certainly have achieved it because we are all masters at selfishness. And yet it appears that we have not done so. All buddhas have achieved buddhahood through altruism; all sen­tient beings remain sentient beings because of selfishness. What does our selfishness consist of? It consists of “I want”: I want pleasure, I want wealth, I want security, and so forth. As Nagarjuna advised the king in his friendly letter, our selfishness consists of an obsessive concern with the eight things of the world: whether I expe­rience gain or loss, whether I experience pleasure or pain, whether I have a good or bad reputation, and whether people praise or revile me.

To overcome our selfishness and obsession with worldly concerns, we are advised to cul­tivate an altruistic motivation. In the Guru Yoga for the Four Sessions composed by the Eighth Gyalwang Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, the prayer recited at the beginning, called The Four Monlams, begins:

My mothers—all beings throughout space—

supplicate the guru, the precious buddha;

My mothers—all beings throughout space—

supplicate the guru, the all-pervasive


My mothers—all beings throughout space—

supplicate the guru, the sambhogakaya of

great bliss;

My mothers—all beings throughout space—

supplicate the guru, the compassionate


Notice that the attitude we take even in pray­ing to the guru is one of praying on behalf of all beings throughout space, all of whom have been our mothers, and this attitude is considered so important that we customarily repeat that prayer 100,000 times during the practice of guru yoga.

But is that really what we are thinking while reciting this prayer? We may be saying, “My mothers—all beings throughout space” and thinking, “I, who am as important as all space.” If that’s what we are thinking inside, then we are really only praying for our own benefit and the fact that we may be talking about all beings in the prayer is not going to make any difference.

Engaging in a virtuous action with an impure motivation is like eating a delicious food that has been mixed with poison. It may be deli­cious while you eat it but because it is poisoned, unless you are a peacock and thereby immune to poisoning, it will kill you. In the same way, any virtuous action that we might perform with a klesha, or mental affliction, as its motivation will not really be a virtuous action. Any one of the ten virtuous actions that is motivated by kleshas becomes in effect one of the corresponding ten unvirtuous actions.

A dharma practitioner must develop the signs of practice. It is said that the sign of having heard the dharma is that one is tranquil and subdued; the sign of having meditated is that one has few mental afflictions. If that does not happen, if our dharma practice consists of thinking that “I am as important as all space,” then it is not working—we are not emulating the guru; we are not fulfilling our guru’s intentions; we are not defending the purity of the dharma.

Therefore, especially when approaching the teachings, do not be selfish in your motivation; do not be limited. Bring to mind the fact that all beings throughout space have all been your parents and all of them want to be happy just as intensely as you do. All of them want not to suffer just as much as you want not to suffer. Resolve that you are engaging in this virtuous action, in this case receiving the teachings, so that you can bring about the full awakening of bud­dhahood of all those beings who seek the final and permanent happiness; that you will bring all beings to a state that not only transcends the three realms of samsara, or cyclic existence, but also the state of one-sided nirvana of an arhat; that you will bring all beings to buddhahood and for that purpose you will engage in this virtuous action. With this motivation you are seeing the suffering of beings as it is, recognizing its severity and intensity, and you are seeing beings’ wish for happiness as it is.

Unfortunately, although we all want to be happy, because we are generally ignorant of what constitutes the true causes of happiness—virtuous actions and so forth—very often we do the oppo­site of what will make us happy; we do exactly what will cause us to suffer. Recognizing that all beings want to be happy as much as you do and that they are largely unsuccessful in achieving the happiness they seek, understand that to abandon them in this situation would be unconscionably ruthless and selfish. If you can engage in even a slight act of virtue motivated by a true love, com­passion, and bodhichitta, the power and merit of that virtue will be immeasurable.

A Buddha’s Motivation

It is said that there is no way to please buddhas other than by pleasing sentient beings. This is because all buddhas and bodhisattvas of the past, present, and future appear among us with a single intention: to free all beings from suf­fering and from all causes of suffering. at the very inception of their path, these great beings are motivated by aspiration bodhichitta, which is the aspiration to achieve perfect awakening for the benefit of others. on that path, they imple­ment this aspiration through implementation bodhichitta—the practice of the six paramitas and so forth. and finally, in reliance upon those two types of relative bodhichitta, they discover absolute bodhichitta. That is to say, at the culmi­nation of their path they recognize immaculate, flawless, perfect nature or true being. That nature has always been perfect and unchanging but was obscured by the clouds of our ignorance. When that nature is revealed at the culmination of the path, that is buddhahood.

Therefore, we can see that the achievement of buddhahood begins with the motivation of aspi­ration bodhichitta and is cultivated by implemen­tation bodhichitta. Finally, it manifests through the discovery of absolute bodhichitta.

We must look at the actual motivation and the actual behavior of the great masters we wish to emulate. If you want to emulate the buddhas and bodhisattvas, then study the behavior of the lineage masters. Recognize how unselfish they have been, how compassionate they have been. For example, consider the life of the first Gyalwang Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. He medi­tated for long periods in a hut so small that he could only fit into it in the meditation posture. The Gyalwang Karmapa became the Gyalwang Karmapa through intense practice done for the benefit of others, not through selfishness or some kind of self-aggrandizement.

The Medicine of Dharma

The Buddha taught 84,000 aggregates of dharma, and the purpose of all of these teachings was to serve as remedies for our mental afflictions. he taught the vinaya in order to serve as a rem­edy for the affliction of attachment, the sutras to serve as a remedy for the affliction of anger or aversion, the abhidharma to serve as a remedy for the affliction of bewilderment, and the secret mantra to serve as a remedy for all three afflic­tions. all of the Buddha’s teachings were given in order to provide us with the means needed to overcome the three afflictions: attachment, aversion, and apathy (or bewilderment). If these teachings serve as remedies to these afflictions, they are working. If they do not serve as rem­edies to these afflictions, they are not working. The correct way to approach any of the Buddha’s teachings is to start with the recognition that we are afflicted, that we have kleshas. With that understanding, we see ourselves as persons who are ill; we see the Buddha as a physician and the dharma he taught as medicine that we take in order to cure the illness of the three poisons. If this medicine does not cure that illness, it is not working; in some way we are not absorbing it and it is not countering the illness.

Lord Gampopa composed a template for the dharma path that we call The Supplication of the Four Dharmas of Gampopa: “Grant your bless­ing that my mind may go to the dharma / Grant your blessing that the dharma may become a path / Grant your blessing that the path may remove delusion / Grant your blessing that delusion may arise as wisdom.” If our practice of dharma and our involvement with dharma does not heal our kleshas, does not change or improve our minds, then our minds are not turning toward the dharma. If our minds do not go to the dharma, dharma cannot possibly become a path, and there is therefore no path to remove delusion. If delu­sion is not removed, we will never experience the original wisdom that is our true nature. The only way to achieve awakening is by transforming the five poisons into the five wisdoms. It is through the purification of those poisons that the wisdoms can manifest and be recognized. Without that, there is no way out of samsara.

The Importance of Individual Liberation

Authentic practitioners of dharma must focus their attention on their own faults and not on those of others. We can ascertain from our own experience that attending to the faults of others is fruitless and pointless. After all, we have spent our whole lives up to this point obsessing about the faults of others and it has gotten us nowhere. The basic definition of the dharma that the Buddha handed down is pratimoksha, or individual lib­eration. This concept and teaching of individual liberation is so important and so central to the Buddha’s message that he said himself that after his parinirvana, the teachings on individual lib­eration would be his representative. The idea of individual liberation is that before you can help others, before you can free others from their kleshas, you must first liberate and free yourself from your own kleshas. Otherwise your perception of others will remain so skewed by your kleshas that you will not even be able to see them as they are.

Therefore, in following the Buddha’s teachings we have to first apply the practice of dharma to our own kleshas. We have to pay attention to our own faults and recognize them for what they are. If we fail to do so, we will project our kleshas onto others. Neglecting our own kleshas, we will become more and more obsessed with the appar­ent faults of others. The more attention we place on what we perceive as other’s faults, the more we feed our own kleshas—we are literally add­ing fuel to the fire of our own mental afflictions. About this, Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye said in his Calling the Guru from Afar, “We hide the mountain of our own faults deep within us and yet openly and widely proclaim the sesame seed’s worth of another’s faults everywhere.” and this is how we are. Because we are so afflicted and deluded by our kleshas, we experience our pro­jections as real. But they are not real.

The Buddha taught that there are two aspects to reality: one is the causality of mere appear­ances, which he called relative truth, and the other is the nonexistence of those mere appear­ances, which he called absolute truth. We need to understand this and understand, therefore, that our deluded perception and our deluded projec­tions are mere appearances dependent upon the existence of the mental afflictions—the unsub­dued (or unconquered) mental afflictions within our own minds. If we fail to take this to heart, if we become someone like the person described by Jamgön Kongtrul, who actually hides the huge mountain of their own faults inside and widely proclaims the sesame seed’s worth of faults in others, then we have missed the whole point; then we are like those whom Guru Rinpoche spoke about when he said, “If they don’t recog­nize this, even great pandits learned in the five sciences will remain as deluded as anyone else.” We must tame our own mind through dharma. Otherwise we are not improving our situation. Unless eradicated, the kleshas that have afflicted us throughout beginningless samsara will con­tinue to afflict us endlessly and will remain as they were.

An Extraordinary Opportunity

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa, and many other great mas­ters of the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism have come to the West repeatedly. You have had the opportunity to meet these great masters, to listen to their teachings, and to do so in a state of freedom, convenience, and even luxury that is almost unprecedented. Since you have all of this, all of these resources at your beck and call, it is important that you make some genuine use of it; it is necessary that your contact with these holy beings actually does you some real good. and the real good that such contact is supposed to do is to help you tame your mind and overcome your kleshas. In this way, I would like to remind you of this extraordinary opportunity that you all enjoy and to urge you to make the best possible use of it.

Bardor Tulku Rinpoche

Bardor Tulku Rinpoche

Bardor Tulku Rinpoche is the founder and spiritual director of Kunzang Palchen ling in Red Hook, New York. Recognized by the Sixteenth Karmapa as the third incarnation of Terchen Barway Dorje (1836–1918), he has worked to preserve the treasure lineage teachings and present them to a Western audience.