October 12, 2013

A Skeptic Awakening at the Foot of a Sage: Geshe L. Sopa’s Lessons Before the Lessons. ~ Julie Tallard Johnson

I consider myself a willing skeptic at the feet of many sages and yoginis.

I am willing to explore and to reach for meaning while being given spiritual instruction. During various teachings, rituals and empowerments that I attended over the years at Deer Park in Oregon Wisconsin, I was deeply inspired by the Venerable Geshe Lhundub Sopa’s introductory teachings. I admit that these lessons before the lessons’ often held more meaning for me than the primary teachings. I was able then as I am now, to use these teachings in a more practiced way, integrating them into my daily life.

After hearing these over the years I believed that others would benefit from Geshe L. Sopa’s introductory lessons and was inspired to transcribe some into a small book. I worked through five teachings, all of which begin with a verse from a Buddhist text. I offer these transcriptions here in a series of 10 blogs: ‘A Skeptic Awakening at the Foot of One Sage.’

I am not a scholar of, or an expert in Buddhist text. I am a student and have been studying and practicing meditation, the I Ching and Buddhism since the age of 16 (over 40 years now). I listen to the teachings, take notes, take meaning from what I hear and then practice the principles offered to me through my understanding.

These edited transcriptions of five introductory teachings were reviewed and discussed with Geshe L. Sopa himself. This being said, this is my interpretation of what I heard and understood. However these are not my words or message; I did my best to lift his words and meaning from his introductory teachings, our conversations and his books.

So, these are Geshe Sopa’s lessons before the lessons’. This is what I heard sitting at the feet of one master. Following his lesson I offer up a brief commentary and some writing prompts for you. In addition I give you some resources and a list of books. 

Lesson One:

Seed for Future Lives and The Motivation to Practice (taken on August 28th, 2005).

(Geshe L. Sopa asked that I begin with this teaching)



”Whosoever was negligent previously

But later became attentive and careful,

Shines forth like the moon freed from clouds,

Just like Nanda, Angulimala, Ajustastru, and Udayana.”

~ Nagarjuna, Letters to a Friend, Verse 14 (Leslie Kawanura)


“I look around me and see that many are needlessly suffering due to ignorance and such afflictive emotions as jealousy or anger. People wonder if it is really worthwhile to begin a spiritual practice if they have been careless with their life so far. Fortunately, it is never too late to have the benefits of a spiritual practice. But, where do you find the motivation to start and follow through on the spiritual path, especially if you have been careless with your life so far? As the great Indian master Nargajuna reminds us, even the formerly neglectful one, once becoming attentive and careful, can be beautiful and free from the clouds of obstruction. Even if you have led a careless life thus far you too have the means of liberation. Everyone has the ability to free themselves from the past as well as from their afflictive mental states and generate true happiness in this and future lifetimes.

The Certainty of Rebirth

While holding a special kind of attitude for future lives; through a willingness to let go of an obsessive focus on this life; and while working to make this life meaningful from now on, you too can shine. If you undertake these things, you too can shine forth like a beautiful full moon unobstructed by negativity. A personal realization of the certainty of rebirth activates the transformation of the mind and begins to negate the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and hatred. All negative actions and resulting unhappiness arise from these three poisons.

This certainty of rebirth opens you up to understanding and practicing the Dharma because you are motivated by such a realization. No matter what you have done up to this point in your life, you can obtain freedom by training your mind and living conscientiously. However, unless motivated by the certainty of future lives, you may not take this opportunity given you.When your focus remains primarily on this life you remain obstructed by the three poisons and can never obtain true and lasting happiness.

Fortunately, at some point you may come to realize that life is short and precious, like a bubble on the ocean; you grasp the certainty of death. You admit that death can arrive at any time and that focus on worldly goals alone will not help you at the time of death.

If you have been careless with your life thus far, and have emphasized the obtaining of material wealth or social status and find that these do not bring true and lasting happiness, you can still change your view and therefore work toward your future happiness. Working on happiness for this life only is a waste. Your consideration needs to be on everlasting happiness and setting the proper conditions for your future lives. If you are presently obstructed by ignorance, anger, or attachment and experiencing the resulting unhappiness these bring, you have the means to be free.

A Special Kind of Attitude

The moon is beautiful, colorful and bright—but when clouds obstruct its radiance, its basic natural beauty is obstructed. A person whose mind is caught up in afflictive emotions is like the moon obstructed by clouds. Their mind is obstructed and they are not using their basic intelligence. But this condition is not absolute; this obstruction of afflictive emotions is not permanent. A person whose mind was previously covered by the clouds of attachment, ignorance, hatred, jealousy or any kind of negative mental construct can be freed of these. Many have been clouded by conceit or pride, holding a wrong view, however, this also is not absolute, not permanent.

Even in such a case where the mind was completely clouded—resulting in utterly evil, negative speech and actions—there is an opportunity for freedom. This person held a totally wrong view; it can be this way for some people. However, even the most evil person can become pure, free of all obstacles and become like the full, cloudless moon. It is never too late to develop a special attitude about this life and future births. This means that you are motivated to live life meaningfully and to study and practice the Dharma, because all of this influences the direction you will go after death. Once you fully grasp that you are going to be born again into another life and that this is an irreversible and inevitable fact, you become motivated by wanting a higher rebirth. You also understand that, in this present life, you have the opportunity to influence your future lives (so that you will once again have the fortunate opportunity to practice the Dharma).

Developing this special kind of attitude toward future lives then gives you the motivation necessary to seriously learn and practice the Dharma. This attitude motivates you to live a purposeful and conscientious life, to take this opportunity to give up negative and careless ways.

You can rely on your basic intelligence to take full advantage of this opportunity.”

My Commentary

The afterlife has never been something I have given much consideration to. Even when I was in the throes of my spiritual questing, I was motivated by finding meaning rather than seeking a destination (be it enlightenment, salvation, heaven or future lives). So I felt karmically poked when Geshe Sopa requested that this be the first lesson, the foundational piece for all the other teachings. After all, I thought, isn’t it what we do with the present situation that matters? And can’t we all be motivated by our shared human condition with the desire to simply be kind and helpful to one another?

Then again (poke, poke) this moment does lead into the next with each future moment coming forth from the causes and conditions of this present moment. So am I not creating my future moments by what I believe and create in this moment? And can’t I extend that understanding further out—into the greater mystery of the beyond? Nature demonstrates that nothing dies entirely but transforms into other life forms. Everything moves on to future expressions of life–future lives. And whatever it was in this lifetime, at least in part, determines what it becomes in the next.

So, for me it comes down to understanding that what we believe and do matters, not only to each other but to ourselves. And if we are discouraged, angry, unhappy, unkind or dissatisfied with the condition of our life we can transform that right here, right now. It’s never too late because with such transformation comes a promise of a better future moment and life.

Writing Prompts

Write a brief description of what your next life will be like based on this present life. If you were to die today, imagine where you would find yourself ‘next’. Not so much what you hope for, but where might you find yourself in the next life based on the karmic imprints of this life?

Write about a time you were neglected. Have this be a true story from your life. Then a few days later come back to it and rewrite it (re-myth it) by having it turn out happily. Begin the story the same way but have it progress to where you are not neglected.

Write about the moon using the following words: rebirth, design, golden, mandala, next.

Suggested Reading




Like a Waking Dream: The Autobiography of Geshe Lhundub Sopa. Wisdom Publications




Nagarjuna’s Letter To A Friend: With Commentary By Kangyur Rinpoche, Snow Lion Publications


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Assist Ed: Sanja Cloete-Jones/Ed: Sara Crolick

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Julie Tallard Johnson