Sixty-three-year-old former attorney Bob Brintz, a student of Lama Zopa Rinpoche from Texas, United States, lives with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and is almost completely paralyzed. In order to write to Rinpoche and request formally Rinpoche as his teacher, he used a computer that allowed him to type using just his eyes. In his letter to Rinpoche, Bob writes that his introduction to the Dharma in 2007 was “transformational.”
Rinpoche sent Bob a six-page letter in response giving encouragement and sharing some spiritual advice. Lama Zopa Rinpoche recommended that Mandala print both of these letters in their entirety:
Dear Lama Zopa Rinpoche,
I am a 63-year-old former attorney, almost totally paralyzed from ALS [Lou Gehrig’s disease]. I can no longer speak. I take food through a tube in my stomach and require a ventilator connected to a tube in my throat in order to breath. I require the assistance of caregivers 24/7. I am typing this e-mail with my eyes, using a computer that can also speak what I type. Although my medical condition presents some obstacles to Buddhist practice, there are also a number of advantages. I have learned many important lessons from my paralysis.
Most people with ALS suffer greatly. When they go into respiratory failure, they choose to die rather than continuing to live by going on a ventilator. Because of my Dharma practice, I do not suffer from ALS. My joy of life is undiminished. I am working to show others how they too can come out of suffering from ALS by explaining a number of simple techniques to retrain their minds to be more positive and hopeful. My introduction to the Dharma was transformational. I attended 10-day vipassana meditation courses in 2007; I was unable to attend more courses due to my worsened disabilities. Vipassana does not utilize analytical meditation. Nevertheless, I have derived great benefits from this practice, including developing equanimity and introspective awareness.
Fortuitously, last year I discovered on Amazon.com, a treasure trove of Mahayana teachings by Lama Yeshe and by you. After studying more than a dozen of those wonderful teachings, I started using a condensed lam-rim, Modern Buddhism, Vols. 1-3 [by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso], as a guide. I studied the practices for each of the three types of individuals. I concluded that the Modern Buddhism set is too condensed to work well as a roadmap and that I progressed too quickly through the preliminary stages. So, I started over using a much more detailed and very wonderful lam-rim, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment [by Geshe Lhundub Sopa Rinpoche]. I have read Volumes I (The Foundation Practices), II (Karma), and part of III (Bodhichitta) of the five-volume set. Of course, I have been contemplating and meditating.
The teachings resonate with me very powerfully. I’m uncertain to what extent my medical condition will prevent me from engaging in tantric practices. I feel that I’m making good progress toward developing compassion for every sentient being. I would like to take the bodhisattva vows and work toward developing bodhichitta. However, I’m quite certain that trying to do this without a qualified teacher is like a blind person trying to navigate his way through a dense wilderness without a guide. I would like to request you to be my teacher. I pray for your speedy and complete recovery. I am joyfully at your service.
I am so happy to get your letter telling about your situation. You are so unbelievably fortunate to have read all those Dharma books and especially Geshe Sopa Rinpoche’s books and to like them. There are a few books by Geshe Sopa that we printed on the path of the lower capable being, middle capable being, higher capable being, bodhichitta, calm abiding and great insight. For you to find these books is like somebody by good fortune arriving without knowing [ahead of time] in a place full of wish-granting jewels, where they can pick up and take the jewels. But these teachings are not only to solve ordinary problems, like taking medicine for sickness. They solve the very root of the problems – dag-dzin – holding the “I” as truly existent and holding the aggregates as truly existent. The concept of holding the “I” as truly existent and the aggregates as truly existent while in reality they are not, while they have been empty from the beginning, they never came into existence, they do not exist from their own side – this is the root of samsara.
Buddhism totally eliminates the root of all the suffering in samsara. Without eliminating that by realizing emptiness, one can’t be free from samsara and from the oceans of sufferings in each realm. It also eliminates the self-cherishing thought, which has brought all the problems and all the troubles and all the obstacles to achieve happiness since beginningless rebirths, and also brings all the obstacles to achieve happiness in this and future lives, and all the obstacles to achieve liberation from samsara and ultimate happiness, the peerless happiness of enlightenment. That includes your sickness. What caused it is the self-cherishing thought and, of course, ignorance, the concept holding the “I” as truly existent.
There is a teaching by Lama Atisha’s guru, Dharmarakshita, that talks a lot about how we created a lot of negative karma with the self-cherishing thought in the past and because of that, now at this time, different sufferings and sicknesses are experienced. It is called the Wheel of Sharp Weapons. It talks about how the “wheel of sharp weapons,” negative karma, turns this life and therefore we don’t want to create any more causes for this to happen now.
Instead of thinking, “I am the one with sickness,” it is very good to always think, “‘I’ is what is merely labeled by the mind depending on these aggregates, the valid aggregates; that is the only way the ‘I’ exists in reality.” When you think this way and then you compare your view of the “I” with the way you viewed it before, previously you always saw the “I” as something real, existing from its own side, existing by itself, truly existing. But that “I” is not there. You cannot find that real “I” at all from the tip of the hair down to the toes. You cannot find it in the body aggregate, the feeling aggregate, the cognition aggregate, the compounding aggregates or the consciousness aggregate. None of these is the merely labeled “I” and even all together they are not the “I.” The aggregates themselves are not the “I,” nor can the “I” be found on the aggregates. The “I” cannot be found from the tip of the head down to the toes, but it does exist. It exists in mere name because there are valid merely labeled aggregates. So now, when you compare this with before, it looks like the “I” doesn’t exist, but in reality, if you check up, the “I” does exist. It is not completely non-existent, but it exists only in mere name.
It’s good to think all the time that this sickness is caused by the past self-cherishing thought. Always have the idea that the self-cherishing thought is the enemy, the real enemy. There is no outside enemy. The outside beings – every hell being, hungry ghost, animal, human being, sura and asura – everyone is the most precious wish-granting jewel from whom I receive all my past happiness from beginningless rebirths, all the good things, and also in the present and in the future, all the temporary happiness, samsaric happiness, then beyond from samsara, ultimate happiness, liberation from samsara, then ultimate happiness, peerless happiness, full enlightenment. I receive all of this from every sentient being. Even Buddha, Dharma, Sangha in whom I take refuge in order to be free from all the oceans of suffering in samsara and achieve enlightenment came from every single sentient being; they came from sentient beings’ kindness. Every sentient being is more kind than Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. By quality, of course, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha are very precious, but sentient beings are more kind than Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Therefore, of course, there is no question that freeing sentient beings from the oceans of samsaric suffering and bringing them to the peerless happiness of enlightenment is most unbelievably urgent. Wow, wow, wow! We need to try to do that in every second. But even to free them from temporary sufferings, whatever problems you can see that they need help with, whatever one can do, one must do.
Generally speaking, if somebody is carrying a very heavy load, then you help them to make it lighter. Or if someone is drowning in the water, you save them. Do whatever you can to help. If somebody has a hallucination, wrong view, give them advice on what to think and so forth. Even giving your seat to somebody in the bus or train is an unbelievable pleasure for you because you can offer that comfort. It’s an unbelievable pleasure, most pleasurable, because of sentient beings’ most incredible kindness to you. It’s so important to you to give even a tiny pleasure – to give money to those who have no money, to share food with those who have no food.
Think in this way about others’ kindness your whole life; live your life with the understanding that others are the most precious, kindest and wish-fulfilling. Then your life is naturally to help others, to stop even the smallest suffering of others. Your everyday life becomes like that. There’s always great happiness in your mind and you live your life for others, even praying for others. You cannot stop world wars or big problems like that, but at least you can pray and then dedicate your prayers and that will help, they have power. It is said in the teachings, the Piled Three Precious Rare Sublime Ones Sutra (kon chog sum tseg pai do), “All phenomena arise due to conditions, they depend on the tip of the wish.” This way your mind is always in a state of happiness. That’s really the best psychology. It’s the best meditation and the best psychology. Keep your mind always happy.
Now think that whatever problem you are experiencing is always caused by self-cherishing and therefore self-cherishing is the main enemy, rather than recognizing self-cherishing as “me,” the friend – that’s where all the suffering comes from. And then even if the suffering is insignificant, you make it into huge mountains of suffering. You exaggerate and then you suffer. For example, in the hotel there are lice at nighttime, and then the next day you move to another hotel. You make it into a huge problem. A HUGE problem. You order bread and they bring the bread cold, so then you look for another hotel, or you can’t find a hotel, and so forth.
It is mentioned in the Guru Puja: “By seeing cherishing oneself as the chronic disease, the cause of all the undesirable things, put the blame on that and harbor it. Please bless me to destroy the great demon, the self-cherishing thought.”
This is a great meditation. Here, you not only blame the problems on the self-cherishing, but actually use the problems, you give them to the self-cherishing thought. The self-cherishing thought caused you to suffer, so you give the suffering back to the self-cherishing thought and destroy your real enemy, the self-cherishing thought immediately; there is not even the name self-cherishing thought left. At the same time, you see that the real “I” is empty, totally non-existent, and also the ignorance that sees the real “I” is totally empty, non-existent. Then meditate on that for a while, as much as you can. Then look at the aggregates as empty, hell as empty, enlightenment as empty, happiness as empty and suffering as empty.
Then also think, “Cherishing the mothers (i.e., sentient beings) and the thought to lead them to happiness …” Here, it doesn’t have to mean all sentient beings (of course, best is all sentient beings), but it can be even leading just one sentient being to happiness. “[This] is the door arising infinite qualities” means all the qualities, all the good things including full enlightenment. “Seeing this, even though all sentient beings rise up as my enemy …” – that means numberless hell beings, numberless hungry ghosts, numberless animals, numberless human beings, numberless suras, numberless asuras and numberless intermediate state beings rise up as your enemy ‒ “… may I cherish them more than my life.”
These two verses [explained above] are an incredible source of meditation, very extensive.
Please read my book, Transforming Problems into Happiness. There you can find a lot of different practices and also the psychology of how to make your mind happy.
In reality, according to the bodhichitta thought transformation practice, the thought of enlightenment, you are the most lucky person – the most, most, most lucky person. This is because you have to think that you have received the suffering of sentient beings: the suffering of numberless hell beings – amazing, amazing, amazing! – numberless hungry ghosts, numberless animals, numberless human beings, numberless suras, numberless asuras, numberless intermediate state beings. So fortunate! Wow, wow, wow! Like Jesus taking the suffering of others when he was crucified. Or, like many great holy beings.
One bhikshu was meditating on the mountain. He realized that if he went to the king’s palace and gave teachings, so many people would receive the teachings and get so much benefit and a higher rebirth. There would be so much benefit, but he also knew that he would be killed. So he gave up his life. He went to the palace and taught and was killed. I don’t remember the whole story but of course he didn’t get a lower rebirth, he got a higher rebirth. The result would be birth in a pure land.
There is another story about Geshe Chekawa. He had been praying all the time to be born in the hells in order to benefit sentient beings, but on the day when he was going to pass away, he had visions of Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Realm all around him. He told his disciple that he didn’t succeed in his wishes because he was going to be born in a pure land and if he were born there it would be impossible to be born in a lower realm again. Many of my gurus explain that. It’s fantastic.
If you practice tong-len, taking others’ suffering along with the causes of suffering and giving happiness to others, this is the best thing for the time of death. If you do this practice every day, even when you don’t have problems, and at the time of death you can pray like this, it’s the best powa, transference of consciousness to a pure land.
The great yogi Nagpo Chopa was going for action tantra practice near Odi. On the way, he saw a lady near the river completely black in color, filled with leprosy and with pus coming out the sores. She could not walk and she asked him to take her across the river, but he ignored her. Then after some time, his disciple, Getsul Chilbupa, came. He was not a gelong but a getsül with 36 vows. She asked him the same thing to take her across the river and even though he was a monk and could not touch women, the minute her saw her, he felt unbelievable compassion and immediately carried her on his back. At the beginning he saw her as an ordinary sentient being, the same as himself, but because he generated unbelievable compassion for her, even though she was covered with leprosy and dirt, even without crossing the whole river, his negative karma was purified and in the middle of the river he saw her as Dorje Pamo, an enlightened deity, and she took him to the pure land of Thakpa Kachoe. If you go to that pure land, it means you will get enlightened. For him, without needing to die, she took him with that body to the pure land. There is a practice to achieve this pure land with this body called the Inconceivable Yoga. I received this from my root guru and other gurus, and I do give this to others from time to time when people need it.
This is incredible. She was not an ordinary being, but an enlightened being, although she appeared to be an ordinary being. This is another new piece of knowledge, a huge discovery for the West. Since your mind is ordinary, obscured, there are so many things you see as ordinary when they are not. There are enlightened beings and bodhisattvas [around], but you see them not as bodhisattvas or enlightened beings, but ordinary. This is a new discovery for the West. There are endless new discoveries for the West explained in the Dharma that people don’t know, such as the amazing qualities of bodhisattvas to benefit other sentient beings.
Asanga was one of the Six Ornaments, the great pandits who wrote so many teachings and commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings that the monks in the monasteries memorize and take examinations on, practice, study, debate and use to subdue their minds and to subdue others. Asanga received teachings from Maitreya Buddha.
Maitreya Buddha gives an example of this new discovery for the West. For example, the same container of liquid appears to pretas as pus and blood, to human beings as water because they have collected more merit, and to devas, worldly gods, as nectar. This is explained in the Madhyamaka, the debating subject.
When many hundreds of people look at the same person, some will like that person and feel so much attachment, some will see that person as totally ugly, and some will see that person as indifferent. There are many different views. The same person appears to all those people in many different ways and they see that person in many different ways. There are many examples of this; it’s the same with food and many other things.
I’ll tell you another story. Asanga tried to achieve Maitreya Buddha. He tried for three years but nothing happened, so he left his retreat. On the road he saw some bird, maybe an eagle, going into its nest in the rock. Each time it flew in and out, its feathers wore a hole in the rock, the rock had worn away. That inspired him and he thought, “Oh, if even a feather can wear down the rock, I must go back to my meditation.” He went back and tried again for three years, but nothing happened, so he left. Then he saw water dripping on the rock that had worn away a hole in the rock. A drop of water is very small but it had worn a hole in the hard rock. Again he was inspired and thought that if water can do this, why couldn’t he be successful in his meditation? Again he went back to retreat for three years, but again nothing happened, and he left his retreat. Then he saw somebody cutting the rock with a thread. Thread is soft and rock is hard but by constantly rubbing the thread against the rock, it could be cut. He was amazed and again he went back to retreat.
For 12 years he was in retreat, but nothing happened. He left and in the road he saw a wounded dog. The backside and tail were completely wounded and full of maggots. He cut flesh from his thigh for the maggots to eat so that they wouldn’t die and he went to pick up the maggots with his tongue, but he could not touch the maggots because the dog was actually Maitreya Buddha. Before he couldn’t see Maitreya Buddha because of his negative karma, but when that was purified through great compassion, he could see. He immediately grabbed Maitreya Buddha and said, “Why didn’t you come before?” Maitreya Buddha told him, “I was there all the time,” and he showed him the spit on his robe from when Asanga used to spit in the cave. Then Maitreya Buddha asked, “What do you want?” He said he wanted teachings. Maitreya Buddha took him to Tushita Pure Land and he received many teachings. He was in Tushita just one morning, but it was 500 human years. Then he came back down and wrote five commentaries. Abhisamayalamkarika is one of the commentaries, but there are others. There are many commentaries to this treatise composed by Indian pandits and great Tibetan scholars and also by Lama Tsongkhapa and many top learned and good-hearted students. Many numberless beings became bodhisattvas and enlightened by practicing these teachings up to now. And still that is happening now in the world, in India and Tibet and different places where people have been practicing.
Then Lama Atisha wrote the Lamp of the Path to Enlightenment and condensed everything into that, the method and wisdom teachings. There have been so many commentaries to that lam-rim and Lama Tsongkhapa wrote the most extensive commentary. Geshe Sopa has taught that and elaborated on Lama Tsongkhapa’s extensive lam-rim teaching, and there are several books. We tried to find a sponsor. We asked a famous Chinese sponsor to help, so she did that. The help, the benefit, is unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable. So many beings achieve renunciation, bodhichitta, emptiness, become free from samsara and have tantric realization.
You are unbelievably, most unbelievably fortunate to receive the sufferings of all sentient beings on yourself and to let them have the dharmakaya, to give them all the happiness and the cause of happiness, merit. For you it’s very good to practice tong-len.
With much love and prayers,
Lama ZopaTags: illness, lama zopa rinpoche