Geshe Potowa’s Soliloquy Session One: The Art of Listening to the Dharma

geshe potowa

On the first day of the 33rd Kagyu Monlam, a long queue of white-clothed lay people led by lamas and rinpoches sponsored the mandala offering - heaps of red coral proffered on a burnished gold mandala plate. The assembly of monks in gold and maroon at the front, with rows of lay people in white at the back turned the entire Pavilion into an artistic design; more significantly, it also revived the tradition of white cotton, symbolic of purity for Hindu pilgrims in India. Uniformity in the assembly reminded everyone we were there for one purpose: to listen to the dharma.

After welcoming their Eminences, Goshir Gyaltsap and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Kagyu masters and sponsors, ordained and lay people the Karmapa began his teaching on one of 3 great forefathers of the Kadampa lineage. As well as being a Kadampa forefather, Potawa was said to be a reincarnation of one of the 16 Arhats and the previous incarnation of the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa.

The Karmapa reiterated that when teaching the dharma, the teacher's motivation should not be connected with worldly aims. His main point, however, was that the listeners should be free of the 3 faults typified by 3 vessels. The first vessel is upside down which means no water will remain in the bowl.

We may be in the hall in the ranks of listeners but if we don’t direct our attention to it we won't receive the dharma.

The second vessel is a leaky bowl. If it has a crack, the water will flow out the bottom.

If we listen but don't catch or hold onto the words, we will forget it and not know how to practise. We need to focus our mental consciousness on the words so we won't forget the meaning.

The third vessel has poison in it and this poison is of two types. The first poison is common to all beings: greed, hatred and desire. For example, if we have great attachment and listen to the dharma so that our business will flourish, this is the poison of listening with greed. Similarly if our motivation is associated with hatred, then we are like a vessel filled with the poison of hatred. Delusion is the poison of not realizing the dharma is teaching us what to do and what not to do. If we don't recognise that, the dharma becomes mixed with the poison of delusion.

The point of listening, contemplating and meditating is to try to eliminate the 3 poisons. If we identify and eliminate them then our meditation will go well. If not, it will be difficult to liberate ourselves from samsara.

The second type of poison is sectarian bias which can arise when we engage in philosophy. The reason we go forth (as monks and nuns) is to protect ourselves from the 3 worldly poisons. But if we were to go to a Dakpo Kagyu master and from then on we were only pro- Kagyu, and didn’t even prostrate to masters of other schools, we are sectarian. This is like adding fuel to the fire. By engaging in philosophy we have increased our sectarian bias.

''No matter what we do, it’s like food mixed with great poison and is a terrible danger.''

When cooking a meal we need to make sure the dishes don't have poison and are clean. Similarly when listening to the dharma, we have to check our motivation and see if it’s connected with greed, hatred and delusion.

The Karmapa's commentary on the word 'soliloquy' added the right spice to flavour the text. Speaking to oneself can mean that no one will listen to the instructions; there is no one else to speak to but yourself. It conveys sadness or weariness. Another interpretation of soliloquy is that it acts as a reminder to oneself to do something better. So then it becomes inspired.

A soliloquy is something turned inside, because we are speaking to ourselves. Sometimes we need to do this. Sometimes directing our words outside is not as beneficial. In this way, we have no ambitions for old age, or concern whether we will be happy or sad, whether we have enough food or clothing or whether others will criticize us. We have no concerns for this life. What will be, will be and we leave it to karma.

Continuing on this theme, the Karmapa noted that in A 100 Short Instructions of Mikyo Dorje, there was a nice explanation of the meaning of the Tibetan word for instruction as guidance.

Some people complained that the Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje didn't know how to give guidance. In his instructions he admitted that it was quite true, no one goes where I guide them. I guide them to the 4 kayas but they won't come. If they won't move then it’s not guidance. If you show the path and people don't walk it, then it's not guidance at all.

These instructions show the way we must go and if we don't go then there is no guidance.

Potowa‘s main practice was meditation on impermanence, the Karmapa said in conclusion.

He had no time to waste worrying about whether he had time to practise. The reason for this is that death and impermanence is definite.

We can speculate that maybe this or that will happen, but only one thing is definite: from the day we've been born, we are going to die. We don't know how or when, so we start making plans, yet we cannot make plans because we don't know when we will die. There is nothing we can do to inoculate ourselves against death. Many things will cause death.  We cannot prevent it. We can even die eating tsampa.  We can choke on it.

''Think of the meaning of death and impermanence and meditate on it for 5 minutes,'' he instructed the assembly. The immense space immediately became like a 'still life' as movement stopped and eyes shut out the main gate to the world. The teaching closed with offerings for the living and the deceased.


37th Kagyu Monlam Schedule

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Recorded during the 37th Kagyu Monlam, Bodhgaya, India. January 28-30, 2020.