Hi Lam, I’ve always felt a strong affinity Guru Rinpoche. Even as a child, I would be excited when I saw a statue of the Guru, and the seven-line prayer was the first chant that I memorized. On 9 July we will celebrate Guru Rinpoche’s birthday. Usually, I just go to a lhakang to offer prayers on this day. Are there other ways to commemorate the occasion-la?  

TD, Thimphu   

Well, yes, there are innumerable ways to commemorate auspicious occasions, and, in reality, any deed that nudges us towards the truth can be considered a practice.  

What is this truth?    

All compounded things are impermanent.

All emotions are painful.

All phenomena are without inherent existence.

Nirvana is beyond extremes.

In this respect, as long as it somehow reminds us of the truth, even something as mundane as baking a birthday cake to mark the Guru’s birthday is of great benefit. To accomplish this goal, you could perhaps drop the customary long-life wish, and instead offer a prayer that all your guests recognize that birthdays actually mark a reality that we are one year older and closer to physical death. Then, watch their faces drop! HAHA

In reality, however, it is not the truth that hurts, but the denial of the truth. Yes, skin creams and botox can create the illusion that we remain young, but our organs will still age. Then, one day when we are lying on our death bed, we’ll be unprepared to face the reality that everything is falling apart, and we may even feel cheated by the promises given by cosmetic and health product companies. This is not to say that we shouldn’t use skin lotions and take care of our health. In fact, we should look after our bodies. At the same time, however, we need to bear in mind that everything changes and no matter how much cream you lather on your skin or how many vitamins you pop in your mouth, your body will still grow old and will one day die. 

Impermanence is an undeniable reality, but we should note that it not only signifies loss, but also gain. If everything was stuck at one time, then sick people could never regain their health or a pandemic could never end. Furthermore, recognizing that time is slipping away offers an incentive not to waste our lives on trivia, but to focus on important issues and to appreciate what we have.   

How often, for example, do we take our family and friends for granted? Even though our lives are short and we lack nothing, we still fight with them over property and hold grudges over small matters. To put things in prospective, maybe once in a while we should close our eyes and imagine we are about to die. We can picture our life-force draining away and everything we hold dear disappearing. At such a time, will we care about property? Will a misunderstanding with a friend be so important? In reality, if we can be aware how short our lives really are, fighting over property and holding grudges will seem like nothing more than children upset over a misplaced toy. As Dilgo Khyentse repeatedly reminded us: “Our lives have no outcome other than death, just as rivers have no end other than the ocean. At the moment of death, our only recourse is spiritual practice, and our only friends the virtuous actions we have accomplished during our lifetime.”    

Now, I’m not seriously suggesting that you bake a cake, but you can definitely be creative in your way of commemorating the occasion. Basically, as long as your deeds somehow bring you closer to realizing the truth, no practice is better than another. If, for example, baking somehow helps you to recognize that not only a cake has no inherent essence and is merely the result of the temporary joining together of ingredients, but that everything in the universe exists in the same way, then it may actually be a more beneficial practice than traditional ways of commemorating the occasion that don’t awaken any insights. 

If you are asking for actual suggestions, then I recommend that you consider organizing a tsok practice – but make it special. Instead of buying commercial snacks from the local grocery store and sticking them on the altar, make an effort to create an elegant and inspiring atmosphere. Flowers are available in the summer, and so offer fresh cut flowers and tell your friends that they should either bring homemade items or freshly made goods from a restaurant or bakery. Furthermore, as a way to appreciate interdependence and recognize that we both influence the environment and are influenced by it, tell those who you invite for the gathering not bring goods wrapped in single-use plastic bags or cellophane. While the offerings do not have to be expensive, they should be beautifully displayed, tasty, and environmental friendly – basically we should prepare a feast that we would offer Guru Rinpoche if he turned up in person. Now, if you want to take your awareness a step further, ensure that the remainders that are placed outside are not harmful to wildlife. Chocolate, for example, can be fatal to birds and heavily salted items, such as salted peanuts, can also cause them a lot of harm. Finally, the entire puja should be conducted with awareness – shamatha and vipassana in motion.        

It would also be of value to read the life of Guru Rinpoche, but not just as an historical novel, but as a means to bring you wisdom. Like Buddha Shakyamuni and the many great masters, Guru Rinpoche’s every gesture is a teaching that aims to nudge us towards realizing the truth. In some instances, he offered pith instructions on practice, at others he took on different manifestations, while at other times he would perform seemingly magical feats. 

Now, while most people will readily accept the direct teachings, they are often more skeptical about the so called magical aspects of the guru’s life. However, you should not skim over these events, thinking of them as mere legends, but consider the feats as real and a skilful means to shake us from holding rigid and fixed values that, especially in recent times, have been so influenced by rational-based western culture and thought. In reality, our values are merely based on experiences at a particular time and place and are not ultimate views. As an example, think of an aeroplane. At one time, the thought of a large metal bird carrying hundreds of people in the sky would have been dismissed as fantasy, yet everyone now accepts this reality. In this respect, we should not be so hasty to dismiss ideas that do not fit into rational thought. Basically, so-called miracles, such embedding handprints in rock, entering a yak horn without the horn getting bigger or the person shrinking in size, or exiting a river gully with a burning lamp make perfect sense from the point of emptiness. Like in a dream, while logic does exist, conventional rules do not fully apply and phenomenon can be manipulated.  

Finally, here’s the title of a Youtube recording of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche chanting the seven-line prayer to a rap beat: ‘Tadi feat DJKR – Seven Diamond Lines – OFFEN 016’