Promise Me This


This is the third piece in the Venerable Geshe Lhundup Sopa’s introductory teachings, the “lessons before the lessons.” We are still on the verse taken from Nagarjuna, Letters to a Friend.



“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)

 After his teaching, I offer up a commentary, some spiritual journaling prompts, and resources.

Angulimala’s Freedom from Ignorance

This ancient story is an example of someone under the poisonous influence of ignorance or stupidity. At the time of the Buddha, a teacher told his disciple Angulimala, “If you kill one thousand people you will attain emancipation.” This false teacher instructed Angulimala that, after killing each person, he should collect their fingers and add each to a rosary; Angulimala would go to the celestial abodes. Angulimala believed this false teacher and went on to kill 999 people before he met up with the Buddha.

Because of Angulimal’s ignorance, a teacher who wrongly advised him easily influenced him. In Angulimala’s ignorance, he became quite attached to the promise of the spiritual reward that he was guaranteed in response to his actions. Just so, he did not examine what someone one else had instructed him to do. When Angulimala succeeded in killing 999 people, and had one more person to kill in order to fulfill his promise to his teacher (and to receive the spiritual reward), he went in search of his last victim. Because he had been going around killing so many, everyone had come to know him as this person going around killing everyone! Understandably, everyone escaped town or hid from him. Finally when he couldn’t find anyone to kill, he concentrated on finding and killing his mother!

However, instead of finding his mother, Angulimala met up with the Buddha, who had arrived with the intention of saving Angulimala from his actions and to save the mother as well. The Buddha began to walk like an elephant, non-hastily, about town. Everyone else, of course, was gone or hiding from Angulimala. When Angulimala came upon this person walking slowly he went after him to kill him, not realizing that he was the Buddha. However, no matter how fast Angulimala was, he couldn’t get any closer to his intended victim—the distance between them remained the same. Finally Angulimala decided to give up his pursuit for the time being.

Then, of course, the Buddha waited for him.

“Oh, so you want to kill me,” the Buddha said to Angulimala. “Well, you can kill me, but first you must listen to a few words I have to say.”

The Buddha gave him a special teaching on karma and what it really means to engage in a negative action such as killing. Contrary to what he had been told before by the false teacher Angulimala was shown how his actions would result in horrible future lives. As he listened to the Buddha’s teachings, he forgot about his desire to kill.

This was precisely the right time for Angulimala to hear the teachings and to begin to train his mind. As he continued to listen to the Buddha, he quickly became strongly motivated by what the Buddha had to say about karma and future lives. Angulimala wanted to hear more of the Buddha’s teachings and, as a result of his wish to listen to the teachings and then, as a result of actively receiving them, a desire to confess all of his past bad deeds arose in him. His genuine interest in the teachings (motivated by the desire for fortunate rebirth) and resultant confession purified all of his immense negative karma. In Angulimala’s case, he achieved realization in the same lifetime that he had encountered this spiritual friend and had committed to the spiritual path.

Thus so, you too can come to a time where you finally meet up with a true spiritual friend, receive instructions on karma, and become motivated by the certainty of future lives. Then, by realizing the causal effect of past negative actions, you may seek and find purification through confession.

Next lesson: The Four Powers of Confession

My Commentary: Promise me This   

It seems to me you can’t follow two masters at the same time: the false teacher and the authentic teacher. Neither can we follow craving or contentment at the same time. Try to be anxious and peaceful about something simultaneously. You will discover that you must choose one path. The path you take in the outer landscape of your life is based on the internal path you have chosen. Of course we must discern for ourselves through awareness and inquiry what is true and what is false. A good way to check this is listen to what the teacher is promising. Listen also to what the teachings promise.

I find myself at times uncomfortable and unnerved because I am either venturing into new mental or spiritual territory, or old habitual ways are being challenged. I know enough to trust the process and move through these emotional states on my own. When I feel ashamed, belittled, or agitated while listening to teachings, I question the origin of these feelings. Am I still just bumping up against some internal baggage, or is there something in my environment that is generating these negative emotional and cognitive states? What is the teacher promising? Am I being asked to do so something to obtain some outcome while my inner guide nudges me elsewhere? Is the promise offered me based on altruistic principles or some selfish reward? Do the teachings encourage me to open my heart and experience oneness or to obtain some isolated benefit?  (These are questions you too can ask yourself when confusion or anger arises).

“The teacher’s role is to show the student the possibility of presence. The pointing-out instructions are the transmission: together the teacher and student create the conditions in which the student sees what the teacher is pointing to.” -Ken McLeod, Wake Up to Your Life

At another teaching at Deer Park Buddhist Center, Geshe Sopa spoke on the importance of finding a skillful teacher. He emphasized “seeing the difference between a teacher that shows the inner path versus one that shows the outer path.” Mark the difference between these two types of teachings, he suggested. Ask yourself, is the inner path of discipline, meditation, and contemplation emphasized, or are the externals such as ritual, appearances, and traditions emphasized? Choose a teacher that focuses on the inner path, for this is the way of the authentic teacher.

Spiritual Journaling Prompts and Spiritual Inquiry

Write your own commentary on this story. There are so many layers of instruction,–on karma, on timing, on teachers and teachings, on ignorance, on a willingness to listen, and so forth–choose one that stands out to you at this time in your life. Practice inquiry through journaling about your chosen topic. Post it on my blog if you like.

Write or recall a time you realized that you were being scammed.

Write a poem or essay on one of the most profound teachings you’ve received. Include quotes by the teacher. Now, share this with others.

Observe and write down promises being made to you by others and those you are making to yourself. Are they authentic or false promises–ones that are a direct result of your actions or some false promise based on some fear or desire?

Further resources:

•To find more books and teachings by Gesha L. Sopa and offerings at Deer Park go to: 

•An entire chapter (index) is dedicated to this question of,– is this a false or true teacher, in my book, Wheel of Initiation. Finding an authentic teacher is also one of the 11 principles of the zero point agreement.  Parker J. Palmer also offers guidance in this area in his book: A Hidden Wholeness.  (Click on titles to go to book).

In choosing your god, you choose

your way of looking at the universe.

There are plenty of gods.

Choose yours.

The god you worship

Is the god you deserve.

–Joseph Campbell


“Whichever step of the staircase you enter upon, the journey will, in its own way and own time, lead you to all the other steps. The only requirement is that you continue to put one foot in front of the other—one thought, moment of interest, and effort after another. That is all teachers really require of their students. They have trust that the teachings will unfold their results naturally, if the student will only grasp the opportunity.”

–Geshe Lhundub Sopa with David Patt, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment




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