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On the Passing of Teachers (2022)

“It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community-a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the earth” .

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh has passed away at the age of 95. He’s been in poor health for many many years and this is no surprise. But it’s still incredibly sad.

He was an amazing Buddhist teacher and a big inspiration to me. Two of my teachers died in 2021, Lama Chuck Stanford and Zen Master Wonji Dharma. Both of those deaths hit me hard. And now at the beginning of 2022 Thich Nhat Hanh has passed away. Three deaths in rapid succession. The world is changing. All things are impermanent.

I’m reminded a little of when my parents died, over 20 years ago now. 3 years apart and both from different cancers. This isn’t the same as losing a parent (or two), not even close. But it’s still…. something.

I never met him and I’ve never practiced in his community, but Thich Nhat Hanh has been a big inspiration to me. The first book I read on the subject of meditation was “The Miracle of Mindfulness” way back in 2000. And his book “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching” is still, in my opinion, the best introduction to Buddhism that there is.

He was one of the most well known Buddhist teachers in the world. He was born in Vietnam and he became a monk as a teenager, in the 1940s.

In 1966, he became a Zen Master.

He traveled the world as a peace activist throughout the 1960s, and in 1967, his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize saying, “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.” He wasn’t given the award—it wasn’t given to anyone that year.

He was denied permission to return to his home country in the 1970s, so he moved to France.

He founded an organization called “The Order of Interbeing,” and spent his life spreading Buddhist teachings and advocating for a peaceful world.

There’s a story that gets told about the death of the Buddha. It’s said that his cousin Ananda was at his side and had time to ask two final questions.

Ananda asked, “Do we have to follow all the rules that you set out?”
And the Buddha replied, “Just follow the important ones. Don’t worry much about the minor ones.”

(Ananda forgot to ask which rules were the minor ones)

Then Ananda asked, “Who is going to lead us when you’re gone?”

And the Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.”

It was up to his followers to figure out how to go on. And when our teachers pass it’s up to us to figure out how to go on too. We can get through losses like this. And we will go on.

I think he was aware of just how much people put him on a pedestal. He was almost worshiped. The fact that there even are celebrity Buddhist teachers is a strange thing. Sometimes it feels like a bit much and I wonder if it felt like a bit much to him.

He wrote over 100 books and he taught many many students. There is little doubt that he had a large impact on modern Buddhism.

Thich Nhat Hanh stated that the way forward is to strengthen our bonds of community. We need each other just as much as we need teachers, maybe more. I believe he would like that to be part of his legacy, although of course I don’t claim to speak for him.

Teachers arise and pass away. It’s up to communities to (hopefully) carry on.

Don’t be sad he’s gone. Be happy he was here. We’re all better off because this great teacher existed.

Suhita Dharma, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Karuna Dharma.
All three deceased now. Suhita Dharma was one of the teachers of Wonji Dharma (who was one of my teachers) who passed recently as well.

What if Human Life is Good?

We are lucky to be here.

I just want to say that. It can be so hard to have a positive view of human life, the world, our place in it, etc etc. When things are hard, we struggle. And things are always hard. The older we get, the more we see that. Things get worse and worse sometimes.

You fall in love and have your heart broken. You finally buy a house and realize the associated expenses will keep you poor forever. You find some courage and believe in yourself and then get kicked in the face. And often it can seem like the very worst people in the world are the ones getting all the success in life. The Buddha said that life is full of suffering and it can seem sometimes like that’s all there is.

But it’s not.

Life is a struggle. There is no doubt about that. It’s a struggle for everyone; even the most successful person in the world has to deal with struggling and pain. But we’re still lucky to be here. And lucky to be born at this time in human history.

Longchenpa said we have a, “Human form endowed with precious freedoms and advantages.”

We were not born in a time and place where we could not receive this message. There is no reason why you exist here and now, but you do. This is where you are. That alone is enormously meaningful.

We live in a time and place with soap, running water, modern medicine, accessible clean food and the internet. For so much of human history these things were simply not available, but to us they are almost an afterthought. Wondrous things that lift our lives up are just normal to us because for most of us they’ve been around a long time.

That’s a part of this. That’s something to be thankful for.

The advantages of our life circumstance are giving us unprecedented access to spiritual teachings and other forms of knowledge. There is almost nothing you can’t learn about if you put forth a small amount of effort to track down the information. That is amazing.

In ancient times Buddhist teachers saw how lucky they were to have the kinds of advantages of circumstance that they had.

I don’t think they could have really anticipated the world we live in. But they saw their life circumstances as amazing because Buddhism was available to them. They had the perspective to realize that in another time and place this path wouldn’t have been available and they wouldn’t have been able to reach their full potential.

So, we could get excited about things. We could reflect on our opportunities for spiritual practice and for a relatively comfortable life and we can take joy in that. We can be grateful instead of spending all our time and energy on the things that don’t make us happy.

We can rejoice and be glad.

And, also, we can recognize we have this big opportunity. We can strive to live in a more awakened way and reach our full potential and we should recognize this as a wonderful chance to transform our lives and the lives of people around us. Strive on because you have attained this fortunate existence.

 “Just like a beggar who has chanced upon a treasure of great price,

Reflect with joy upon your freedom and advantages.
In doubt and apprehension that you might be dreaming,

Implement the sacred Dharma –

Source of happiness and benefit in this and future lives!”

-Longchenpa, Finding Rest in the Nature of the Mind

You Are Not Your Home

Toward friends, attachment rages like a river;

Toward enemies, hatred blazes like fire.

Therefore it is the practice of Bodhisattvas to give up that home,

Where the darkness of stupidity, of forgetting what to accept and reject, prevails.

  • the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Verse 2.*

Attachment and hatred. These are things that can cause us a lot of harm. We hold on tightly to the things we want and we try hard to push away the things we don’t want. Sometimes in Buddhism we talk about a concept called the three poisons. These are usually called attachment, aversion, and ignorance. But they have a few different names. It seems like that’s what we’re talking about here with attachment, hatred, and stupidity.

These are said to be the three feelings that cause us the most suffering. But in this case, we’re talking about people so I’ll limit our discussion to that. We are attached to people we like and we are averse toward people we don’t like. Sure, that makes sense.

I can understand easily why hatred is bad. It consumes us. It steals our joy. It makes us do awful things we wouldn’t normally want to do.

But what about attachment? This is a tough thing to think about.

In Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva says:

Beings who are themselves impermanent

Are greatly attached to that which is also passing.

This is our reminder that we can’t hold onto anything, even people. Eventually all things pass away. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take delight in our loved ones as well. But we need to think clearly. If you’ve ever been betrayed by someone you loved, if you’ve ever ignored red flags in a potential partner you’re interested in…that’s attachment clouding your judgment. We want unclouded judgment.

So what’s all this about giving up home?

There are some different ways to think about this. I like to think it means we should broaden our horizons. We don’t have to do anything just because it’s what we’ve always done. Maybe our home can be the baggage we’re carrying.

You are not your history. You are not what has happened to you. You aren’t your family or your tribe either. You aren’t even your opinions and beliefs. You are so much more. You are the sky and all this others stuff is just the weather. We can put down the things that don’t serve us.

The well known scholar and teacher Atisha said: “Keep far away from places harmful to your mind; Stay at a place where your virtue increases!”

We sometimes feel trapped by our circumstances and we rarely really are. I’m not saying someone has to get away from their family and friends, of course. But if you feel you’re being harmed you don’t have to stick around.

And we can love and care about and help all people, not just the ones who look and think like us. It seems that may be getting lost in the modern world. We can have compassion for anyone.

Some say this verse means we should leave our families behind and go be monks in the forest. That’s what the Buddha did. He left soon after his son, his only child, was born and just went to live in the forest. He didn’t return for several years. That’s the part of his story that never sat right with me. I always wondered “Was the Buddha like a deadbeat dad?”

One of my teachers said it doesn’t make a lot of sense to apply modern cultural thoughts about marriage and family to an ancient story. The truth is we’re missing a lot of the context because the situation 2,500 years ago on the other side of the world is so different from the situation here and now. That’s definitely true.

Someone that wants to leave their family and career behind to go run away and be a monk could take that meaning here, but I don’t.

To me leaving your home means leaving your past and your background. But not really leaving it because nothing ever really leaves. It means holding on loosely rather than obsessing about it all the time. We can learn from our past, but we don’t have to live there.

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*all quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa

Spiritual Friends

“When relying on the sacred spiritual friend, our faults become exhausted

And our good qualities increase like the waxing moon.

It is the practice of bodhisattvas to value such a sacred spiritual friend

As more precious than their own body.”

The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, verse 6.*

What is a spiritual friend?

In this context it’s someone with the qualities that we want to embody ourselves. We have the ability to choose who we spend time with. The truth is that if you’re spending your time with people who are trying to be wise and virtuous in their own lives, then it’s a little harder to be a jerk. When we spend time with people that are trying to grow and are encouraging us to grow, that is a great value. And the flip side is if we’re spending time with people that are rude or mean, those qualities will grow in us.

Nagarjuna said, “Through relying on a spiritual friend, pure conduct will be completely perfected.”

There’s a story from the Buddha’s life that I want to share with you.

The Buddha’s assistant Ananda (who was also his cousin and best friend) went up to him and said, “You know, I’m beginning to think that half of the path is just spending time with spiritual friends.”

And the Buddha said, “No Ananda, it’s the whole path.”

I love that story. It really gets at what matters. Being on this growth journey alone is incredibly difficult. It’s so easy to get off track without friends. In the same way people seem to have an easier time getting to the gym and working out when they have a buddy. In the same way support groups really help people that are battling addiction. We don’t need to do this alone.

The spiritual community can be like a support group. Or even just one friend who is trying to grow like you are can be a great help.

I wanted to practice without that community aspect. I am, by nature, more than a little introverted. Social gatherings aren’t my favorite thing and meeting new people isn’t my favorite thing either. It takes me a long time to get comfortable with other people. And I’m telling you that because I am certain many of you struggle with that as well.

I tried to practice Buddhism without a community for a long time and I really regret that. That’s not to say those years were wasted but I could have had so many more opportunities for learning, practice, and encouragement if I had just been willing to utilize what was around me. But I was too busy thinking I didn’t need the support of a community because I didn’t really want to meet people. That seems so silly now. But I know plenty of people think that way. There are a lot of people interested in these kinds of teachings that do not take that crucial step of engaging practice in a community.

But now I think what the Buddha said to Ananda is correct. It is the whole path.

What I recommend is finding a Buddhist community where you live. That being said if there’s not one within an hour of where you live, there are other possibilities. Plenty of people in this world are looking to improve themselves. There are countless Bodhisattvas all around and we just have to seek them out. Go volunteer at a charity. That’s a good way to meet virtuous people a lot of the time.

The people we spend time with can water the seeds of good qualities in us.

There’s another meaning to “spiritual friend” in this context. It can also mean teacher. It’s good to have a teacher. It’s good to have someone that’s been working at this stuff longer than you that can advise you and maybe point to trouble spots.

But in my personal opinion having a community is significantly more important than having a teacher to look up to. The truth is we can all learn from each other.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — –

*all italicized quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa

Company

If, while befriending someone, the three poisons increase,

The activities of study, reflection, and meditation degenerate,

And love and compassion disappear,

Then it is the practice of the bodhisattvas to give up this company.”

The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, verse 4. *

The motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

I don’t think this is literally true. It doesn’t sound like it’s the product of some sort of scientific study. BUT I do think he’s getting at something important and in line with what we’re studying here. Who you spend time with has an impact on you in various ways.

My son told me about an incident in school where some he was hanging out with some friends and one of them got in trouble. So what happened? Everyone got in trouble. He expressed exasperation about getting in trouble when he’s not the one that did anything. That can happen to any of us. The message is pay attention to who you spend time with. Don’t spend time with the people who are getting in trouble all the time, because that will spill over onto you.

Atisha says, “One should give up friends who arouse negative emotions and rely on friends who increase virtue.”

We can choose to devote more of our time to being around people that inspire growth. It’s our job to grow and who we spend time with plays a role. This is not to say that you should cut off many of your friends, but I know I’ve seen a common situation in my own life. There was a period where I spent a lot of time with someone who was always making fun of other people and saw the world in a very negative way. And I started to emulate some of that. This was not intentional on my part, it just started to happen. Being around that person was changing me. I don’t see that person anymore. Being around people who don’t want to grow inhibits our growth.

Shantideva says, “Being in the company of childish beings will cause me to praise myself and belittle others.”

So, being around certain people causes the three poisons to increase. What are the three poisons? They’re three things that often get in our way and causes us to suffer. Attachment, Aversion, and Ignorance. I like to describe them as obsessions. We are obsessed with the things we want, that’s attachment. We are obsessed with the things we want to get away from, that’s aversion. And we don’t see things clearly, that’s ignorance. Sometimes these are called greed, hatred, and delusion. It’s different words for the same concept. If you know someone who’s invested in nurturing these three things in themselves, you’re probably already aware of it. We can try to help someone in that situation, it may even be you. What we don’t want is for someone we spend time with to inspire us to nurture the three poisons.

Instead, we want to nurture our practices of study, reflection, and meditation. These things are safeguards against the three poisons and they help us to generate love and compassion. And the truth is a bad influence can get in the way of these practices. Because, again, if we’re spending a whole lot of time with people that don’t want to grow, it can sap our motivation.

The Nirvana Sutra says, “The bodhisattva’s fear of bad company is not like the fear of a mad elephant. The latter will only trample the body, but the former will destroy the purity of both one’s mind and one’s virtue.”

We are training in Virtue and Wisdom. Good conduct as well as clarity and awareness. That’s what this is all about.

So, this is why the Buddha said that community is very important. Of course it’s important to have a sacred space to go to and a teacher (or teachers) to learn from. But it’s also important to have a community. This is a place you can go to spend time with people who have some of the same personal growth goals that you do. If we spend more time with people like that, then we they can inspire and motivate us.

So we can just think about this when we’re doing anything really. “Is what I’m doing helping me accomplish my growth goals?”

That’s not to say we have to be focused on that all the time. But it is to say that we should be mindful of how much energy we’re putting into transforming ourselves.

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  • all italicized quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa

On The Passing of Teachers

Zen Master Wonji Dharma (left), Lama Chuck Stanford (right)

In the last few months of 2021 two of my Buddhist teachers died. They were both over the age of 60, but they certainly could have had a few more decades in this world. Their deaths have affected me more than I imagined they would. I am mourning their passing. It was a shock that their deaths were so close in time.

Lama Chuck Stanford taught me in the Tibetan Rime tradition.

Venerable Wonji Dharma taught me in the Korean Zen tradition.

The Rime Center Buddhist Community is left to figure out how to go on without Chuck Stanford in this world.

The Five Mountain Zen Order is left to figure out how to go on without Wonji Dharma in this world.

And they will go on. Both these teachers had already retired and trusted their legacies to others. Buddhism outlives teachers, even great ones that touch a lot of lives. We have to go on. I’m hopeful that seeing the ends of these lives that were so dedicated to spreading the Dharma can help us motivate ourselves. We can’t waste our lives. Our spiritual journey is important and needs to be something we focus on.

There’s a story that gets told about the death of the Buddha. It’s said that his cousin Ananda was at his side and had time to ask two final questions.

Ananda asked, “Do we have to follow all the rules that you set out?”
And the Buddha replied, “Just follow the important ones. Don’t worry much about the minor ones.”

(Ananda forgot to ask which rules were the minor ones)

Then Ananda asked, “Who is going to lead us when you’re gone?”

And the Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.”

It was up to his followers to figure out how to go on. And when our teachers pass it’s up to us to figure out how to go on too. We can get through losses like this. And we will go on.

As Aaron Burr says in ‘Hamilton’, ”Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes.”

Since the passing of these great teachers I’ve started doing a daily recitation practice along with my meditation each morning. (I used to do a much shorter recitation)

Both of these teachers manifested great compassion, so a compassion prayer seems appropriate. If you feel so inclined, you can do this daily practice as well.

I used to really see myself as a secular Buddhist, so prayers like this felt off limits and unapproachable to me. That has all changed in the last couple of years. I’ve grown more and more comfortable with Buddhist devotional practices after going through the isolation of the pandemic and the passing of these teachers.

I’ve been focusing more and more on practices to open my heart and I’ve been studying more diverse teachings and practices.

Loss is tragic, but it can also inspire us.

How can I serve others? How can I help you?

These are big important questions.

Buddhism teaches us that loss is the nature of things. Many of us know that very deeply.

Loss is still hard. It’s up to us to figure out how to go on and to try to carry on the legacies of our teachers. They can still motivate and inspire us.

We’re still trying to build a new Buddhist temple in Kansas City. Click below to support that:

Concern For This Life

Separated from each and every long-awaited companion,

Leaving behind hard-earned wealth and possessions,

Guest-like consciousness abandons its guesthouse, the body;

To give up concern for this life is the practice of the bodhisattvas.”

  • the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Verse 4.*

No matter what it is, no matter how much you want it, no matter how long you have it…you can’t take it with you.

There’s a Hebrew proverb that I like that says “There are no pockets in burial shrouds.” That’s the same message. You can’t take it with you.

We know that, of course. We learned this long ago. The breaking down of things has been a part of all of our lives from the beginning. Death is part of that too. We grow up exposed to it. We see it again and again. But it’s still a challenge for us. We carry around with us a sort of deluded thinking. We cling to things as though they are permanent.

Impermanence is a concept in Buddhism. It’s just this obvious and clear idea that all things arise and pass away. This applies to things you own, like your car. It applies to your loved ones. It applies to little things like the negative feelings you have when you have a bad day, or the negative thoughts that flow into your mind that you just feel like you’ll never shake. It applies to really old things like trees and mountains.

And it applies to you. The older we get, of course the more obvious it is.

What’s the point? Why should we reflect on this? It’s depressing.

Atisha said, “Be without attachment toward anything.”

This is the point.

I don’t want to say we shouldn’t love other people or things because they will pass away. I can imagine some people would suggest that but not me. I believe these teachings can be part of our ordinary lives as people with jobs and families.

What then?

What I want to learn to let go of is that obsession with accumulating things. We can get obsessed. We can get stressed out about not getting the things we want. We can be unhappy when someone else has something we want.

And when that happens we can remind ourselves, this too will pass. The bad news is all the good things in our life will disappear. The good news is all the bad things will too.

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  • all quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa

Wonji Dharma Passed Away

I learned that Wonji Dharma (Paul Lynch) has passed away.

I wouldn’t call him my teacher because I was only with his organization, The Five Mountain Zen Order, for a short time. It was 2012 and 2013. I did take Novice Monk Vows from him, so maybe that’s why it feels serious to me. And to lose Wonji Dharma and my first teacher Lama Chuck Stanford in the same year feels really strange.

2012. I’m holding a certificate because I took vows on this retreat.

Wonji was a monk in the Korean Zen Tradition who trained with Master Seung Sahn and Master Ji Bong. He had a vision for online Buddhist communities way back in 2008. This was well before people started to believe such things could work on the internet. He had a vision and was an early adopter of the idea that people could take vows, study, and be trained as Dharma teachers on the internet.

I really learned that that kind of virtual community is not really for me. I need some kind of real life interaction for myself. BUT I am sure it works for many people and Wonji Dharma has left a mark on modern Buddhism. When he started teaching online it was controversial. Many people thought it couldn’t be done. It seems like it’s mainstream now, with organizations like Kwan Um, Shambhala, and Spirit Rock venturing into the web to teach the Dharma. It’s a new world. Many of the students who trained with him online run their own Zen Centers and temples now. Building a community is not an easy thing to do.

I know many people are sad at his loss and that his successors will do great things.

Abandon Negativity

Abandoning negative places, disturbing emotions gradually subside;

Being free from distraction, the practice of virtue spontaneously increases;

With brightened awareness one feels confidence in the Dharma;

To adhere to solitude is the practice of the bodhisattvas.”

  • the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Verse 3.*

We need to be aware of where we’re going and what we’re doing. Sometimes in life we just do things and don’t give it much thought. The truth is that everything can be part of our spiritual journey. Actually everything is, whether we like it or not.

What do we mean when we say things like “Abandon negative places”?

Sometimes in life we feel trapped. In a job, in a relationship, in a social group, whatever. Rarely are we as trapped as we think we are. None of that really bind us. In the song “Already Gone” by the Eagles there is the line: “So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.”

I love that line. It really says what I’m getting at. You are not trapped. You can empower yourself to get out of anything. That’s what we’re talking about here. Staying in a situation that doesn’t serve your growth gets in the way. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for to get ourselves out.

I’m being vague on purpose here. I can’t tell you what is or isn’t a negative place. I can’t tell you if your job or your friendships or your relationships are toxic. But you know. With just a little introspection you know exactly what situations would be good to get out of. Also, it’s true there are some outlier situations where people are really trapped. I do need to go out of my way to mention that. Speaking just for myself, I’ve felt like I was trapped and been wrong before. I have usually had more power to get out than I believed I had.

I think we can add habits to this too. What are the habits that keep us away from our spiritual journey? And then what habits can we add to our lives that inspire more practice?

The Ornament of Sutras says:

The place where intelligent ones practice

Is well supplied, an excellent dwelling place,

An excellent soil, endowed with good companions,

And graced by yogic bliss.”

Several years ago I got divorced and I was really struggling. I stopped trying to cultivate mindfulness and virtue and just sort of wallowed in my struggle.

Then I started going to a Buddhist temple all the time, the Rime Center. I wanted to spend some extra time dwelling in a sacred space and also meeting good companions, people with the same spiritual goals that I have.

If you go less often to the places and situations that get in the way of your spiritual journey, then that can really help. If you go more often to the places and situations that help inspire your spiritual journey, then that can help too. I want to compare it to filling your diet with vegetables so there’s less room for chips.

And it doesn’t have to be a temple, of course. Plenty of people feel motivated and inspired by going out to the woods or something. Your mileage may vary, but I think you probably know already what things and places work for you.

I still like to go to the Rime Center to feel inspiration, but I also have a statue garden in my backyard that I can go to for that. Where do you go?

Nagarjuna said, “One remains in a place that is conducive and relies on holy beings.”

The Buddha said that having a community is important. I think he was right. Getting together with other people that have the same goals as us can motivate us in a way that nothing else really seems to. Some people want to put that aside because they’re introverted. I am sympathetic to that, I used to be quite introverted myself and I still am sometimes.

The Buddha’s student Ananda said, “You know, I think spiritual friendship is half of the path.”
And the Buddha replied, “No, Ananda. It’s the whole path.”

I don’t, however, need to appeal to authority really. I can point to my own life. In the past I spent time with people who looked down on and made fun of others often. And then I stopped. And I could really see my own personal growth, just from getting out of those situations.

That’s really what it comes down to here. Spend time with virtuous people. You don’t have to go to a temple or join a group to find them. You just have to pay attention to the people in your life and dedicate time to the ones who have qualities that you think are positive. That’s it.

Obviously we still have a lot of work to do on our personal growth, but spending time with positive people really puts you ahead.

Spend more time in the places that inspire you. Spend more time with the people that inspire you.

That is how to unleash your potential.

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*all quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa