Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lasting Reflections

Here are some ideas that came to me the hard way. These are just things that I might say to any friend of mine. Since I consider everyone who visits this blog to be a friend, these are things I might say to you. To be perfectly candid, these are things I say to myself, but you are welcome to listen if you wish.

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It seems there is an initial flurry of activity as we involve ourselves with dharma. Maybe this is something like a romantic affair: in the beginning, everything is rosy, then it settles down to a dull sweetness, and then perhaps one's attention begins to wander. This is the nature of untrained mind, so it shouldn't surprise us.

We start out with all the best intentions, reading all sorts of books, visiting different lamas, taking various empowerments. We socialize with each other, and we get new names. Maybe we start dressing differently, wearing Tibetan shirts and jewelry. After a time, we develop the idea that we don't need to listen to dharma anymore -- that we have "heard it all before," or "been there, done that, got the T-shirt."

So, the first thing I want to leave you with is simply this: listening to dharma is very important. Don't stop cultivating opportunities to hear. The 84,000 gates of dharma are symbolized with words, so we need to hear as many of those words as possible. Sooner or later, something integral is going to hit very hard. It will be as if you are talking to yourself. It will feel that familiar.

This is because the dharma and your mind are inseparable. The words are the means by which you investigate this. Traditionally, they say that the words are like the oil in a lamp, searching for gold in a mine. Someday, you find the gold, and the oil runs out. Until that day comes, use the lamp.

It is a mistake to think that you "know" the dharma in an intellectual sense, and that you somehow "possess" this knowledge. Maybe all you do is comprehend. There is a difference between knowledge and mere comprehension.

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If you don't share your lived-through experience of dharma with others, then there is little benefit. Actually, if you don't bring the dharma to others, it is of no use. This is like pure water that sits in a vase for a long time, and becomes stagnant. The purpose of dharma is to benefit others; the essence of dharma is uncreated, unborn, primordial, and utterly simple. Your responsibility, as the natural bridge between purpose and essence, is to let dharma bring you to direct realization of the nature of mind.

If you think you "know" dharma, but you do not have the lived-through experience of dharma bringing you to direct realization of the nature of your own mind, your explanations won't be very powerful. You will be an actor on the stage, reciting lines, telling stories to your audience. If you are easily satisfied with that, then soon you will become quite prideful and vain, and ultimately you will lose your ability to be reborn in the human theater.

So, the point is rather simple: keep listening, and don't become an intellectual. Intellect has nothing to do with enlightenment. Make what you hear a living experience, incorporated into every aspect of your being. When you have done so, then put it to work for others. I am not saying you should become an evangelist; rather, I am saying you should allow your realization to naturally express itself in a way that is beneficial to every sentient being you encounter. This can be as simple as the ability to cogently respond to the question, "What are you doing?" This can be as simple as learning how to be a friend.

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Listening, comprehending, and explaining are not sufficient in and of themselves. You have to actually carry yourself forward to some level of accomplishment. Otherwise, you are like somebody who dies of thirst on the shore of a lake. You have all the conditions necessary for accomplishment, but you just give up and don't carry things through.

Please don't become like me. I just sit around playing with my rabbits all day, and then I fall asleep and fly around in dreams. In my time on earth, that is all I have managed to achieve.

It is also beneficial to play with tigers.

When considering accomplishment, the first thing to examine is motivation. You are not doing what you are doing because you need a job, a title, or a sinecure. That is entirely the wrong approach. If you are practicing and explaining dharma to sustain yourself, in the manner of making a living, then it really is better if you become a farmer. If you are out doing fundraising, it is better if you become a fortuneteller.

I am sorry to say this, but there are all sorts of little "dharma centers" in the world where the lama doesn't really do anything at all. He or she just sits there and gets paid to talk. Everybody gets caught up in "supporting" the center, and all sorts of quantitative arguments arise. Who does more, who does "their share," who does less. Then a hierarchy blooms, of the active ones who "support," and the passive ones who merely sit around. Then "projects" start spawning themselves. It becomes a motel, with a bloody little gift shop.

Better the lama should go get a job, or find some means to care for himself that doesn't involve co-dependency with students -- because, in the end, that is precisely what happens. Nothing gets accomplished other than the lama's breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The co-dependents have something to do instead of shopping or movies. This becomes a guise -- a deception, actually -- where nobody involved accumulates any real benefit. The only "project" should be your accomplishment; coming to know the nature of mind by coming to know the nature of mind, and then benefiting others. The best way to begin is to head for the mountains or the deserts, and go alone.

I am sorry if this offends. After more than 40 years of watching this process in the Western nations, I am of the opinion that dharma motels should be abolished. If you want to support a lama, that is quite alright, but do so in a personal context. Get ten people together and buy him a house if you love him. If you want to build a temple, that is even better. Get one hundred people together. Then you can throw money into the Himalayan artistic community and the construction trades. Just deal with these things nakedly. But, please don't use "supporting the lama" as a replacement for "practicing dharma," or more commonly, as an excuse for not practicing.

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Once you have entered into the path of accomplished unselfishness -- really entered -- there will be a change in your immediate milieu. Your parents, siblings, partners, children, and employees should be the first to benefit. If you notice the entourage of great practitioners, you will always see that their children do rather well. There isn't any deviance or harmful lifestyle involved. As one's accomplishment deepens, one's environment grows less chaotic.

If you are stuck in an environment that is constantly chaotic, or seems to grow even more chaotic, you might want to ask yourself why you are clinging to chaos.

Some people get involved with dharma because they are running away from something. They hear about renunciation, and they become mistaken. They confuse running away with renunciation, and believe it is a good thing. You see this all the time. A lady has an unhappy marriage. Her children are just about grown, the husband is off with his baobei, so she decides she wants to burn up the old man's money being Buddhist. Actually, this is just chaos disguised as some sort of solution to a problem that really doesn't exist.

Years and years ago I knew a Vietnamese priest who later became quite celebrated. Even when I knew him, he had the quality of attracting people. Vietnamese society was badly damaged by the war, so there were always numbers of women who wanted to become nuns. Because of his quality, they would come to him and ask what to do. He would tell them all the same thing. He would congratulate them on their decision, and then tell them to bring in their parents, husband, and children. If everyone agreed, he would permit them to become nuns. If even one person disagreed, then it wouldn't happen. Now, assuming everyone agreed, then every year he would call them all in again, and ask them if they still agreed. This was incredibly skillful.

We run the risk of alienating people from the dharma when we "run off to join the circus." If you are currently under the impression that you are practicing dharma, but you still have major issues with your parents, siblings, spouses, or children, then you probably aren't practicing the dharma. "Being Buddhist" should never be allowed to become an excuse. I think that is a carry-over from the 1950s and 1960s, when "being Buddhist" in the West meant one was something of a rebel.

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Bodhicitta is a lifelong relationship we have with our deepest responsibility as humans. When we are young, it is quite pure and powerful, and that is one reason why all young people should be encouraged to study dharma for at least one or two years. If we replaced football with dharma in the high schools, America would be a different place.

You cannot lose bodhicitta, but you can bury it, or even misplace it. Even if you are a life-long practitioner, various tensions will arise at various points in your life. You will be sitting there mouthing off, "for the welfare of all sentient beings," but you will be thinking about some son-of-a-bitch who did you dirt.

When this happens, it is important to get back on course as quickly as possible. I personally feel that the teachings on bodhicitta are the most sublime in all of Buddhism. If we confine ourselves just to this, then it is quite sufficient.

One millisecond of the honest shining of the great light of bodhicitta is sufficient to carry a person for their whole life. What if we could stretch that one millisecond out a little longer? That is the difference between aspiration and entering. Abiding is, I think, a sort of full circle return to that honest shining that begins us in the first place, except now there isn't any more complication or extremism.

Even if you are the most generous person in the world, but you have not aroused bodhicitta, then it doesn't do any good. You could repeat mantras millions of times, but to what end? Where would the wind rise?

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Having argued the importance of listening to dharma throughout the whole of one's life, I will now add it is likewise important to continually read the authentic texts. By extension, it becomes of fundamental importance to practice the dharma in accord with the dharma as expressed in the authentic texts.

This is of special significance to modern people. Any idiot -- one such as myself, for example -- can get up anywhere -- such as this blog, for example -- and spout off any sort of convincing nonsense that jumps immediately to mind. This can be done quite convincingly. The problem is even compounded by the issue of credentials, as in the case of an idiot with a name or title. In point of fact, names and titles make it all that much worse. You can then be persuaded and convinced of anything, without any sort of check or balance. So-and-so hellish idiot with a fine title and all sorts of credentials could write a lovely commentary about this-and-that, and you would say, "My, profound."

But, if you have the authentic dharma texts close to hand, and you read those first, before you read anything written after, the story becomes rather different. Now you have a corpus of lessons learned that stretches back over 2,000 years to the enlightened mind of Shakyamuni Buddha. You have the sum total of the experience of hundreds of thousands of people just like you: that is to say, the Buddha in each of his lifetimes.

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The ten non-virtues are not the same as Ten Commandments. Nobody is standing there with a gun pointed to your head, saying, "Thou shalt not." You can engage in the ten non-virtues and nobody will say anything.

But, refraining from engaging in the ten non-virtues, and embracing instead the ten virtues, is at the heart of our religion. It makes plain sense. It gives us the freedom from confused consequence that permits liberation to effortlessly unfold.

It is not enough to merely refrain from the non-virtues. If that were sufficient, quite a number of little old ladies in the midwestern states would already be siddhas. Maybe they already are, but I just haven't noticed, because I am stuck seeing them as little old ladies in the midwestern states. Regardless, one must energetically practice the virtues. Since it is easier to practice the virtues than it is to refrain from the non-virtues, then maybe a proactive approach is the best place to start.

Once, many years ago, my teacher telephoned me, and he said, "I hear your actions don't always agree with your views." I admitted this to be the case. He said, "Never mind. The important thing is the understanding. Let the actions come naturally from the understanding."

So, this led me to examine the nature of understanding for the next three decades. During the course and scope of this investigation, I found that I could convince myself of the utility of damn near anything. It was never a question of "right," for me, but of "right for the time." This can become extraordinarily sticky -- really very sticky -- and the only thing that keeps one in anything close to balance is remembrance of the admonitions concerning virtues.

The same applies to another teaching I received, to the effect of, "Even when you are wrong, you are right." That is perhaps the most beautiful teaching in the whole of Vajrayana, but it is as dangerous as a six dollar pistol when whispered in the ear of a fool like me.

I have to constantly remind myself. Whenever occasion arises, I should: Save lives. Be generous. The Big General tells the Little General. Be fundamentally honest. Reconcile people. Speak pleasantly. Be serious. Be happy with what I have. Help people. Have faith.

There is an ocean of people, animals, insects, ghosts, and so forth -- all these aspects of mind -- who are miserable because they haven't realized emptiness. You have to open your heart to them, regardless of who or what they appear to be. Thus, the occasion to practice virtue will seemingly arise, and gradually, the seeming necessity to engage in non-virtue will disappear of its own accord.

One fine day, you will collapse the boundary between the dichotomous components of conditioned thinking; but, until you do, don't be like me. Don't take terrible risk for small benefit. If you can really collapse the boundaries, then the dichotomy of risk and benefit won't be produced. You will overcome accepting or rejecting virtue. In the interim, if you think you see risks there will certainly be risks. If there are risks, then there will be success or failure. If there is success or failure, there is virtue and non-virtue. To expedite matters, practice virtue to inculcate success, and avoid non-virtue to inhibit failure. That is the peaceful way to evaporate risk.

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One of the very best things you can do in this life is go away alone somewhere and take a proper rest. You can spend several million dollars to build a retreat center somewhere, or you can just wander off in the hills. If you drop dead, and wild animals eat you, it will save your relatives the cost of a funeral, and you won't have to suffer growing old, getting sick, and having your loved ones argue over your possessions while you lie stinking in a puddle of pee.

All of your life, you have been thinking, and since you took up Buddhism, you have been thinking about your thinking. Maybe you have been taught that thoughts arise, dance around, and fall, so that is how you are thinking about your thinking. Maybe you believe that mind is like a ballroom. The past and future get up and twirl around the floor, and that becomes the present.

Proper rest is that which occurs in the interval between dances. Dancing is always present, but you have the option to sit one out. You don't need to have an opinion. You can just sit there and watch the other dancers if it makes you happy. You can even close your eyes. It will be alright. You can just sit there, with your eyes closed, listening to the music if it makes you happy. You can even stop listening. It will be alright.

Guitars don't play themselves.

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3 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you are a genius.

Kunga said...

Now I'm going off to wander in the hills. Thanks for this post :-)

karma phuntsok said...


It reminds me of a recent conversation I had with a friend from Mindrolling. He is a Tulku, has tons of retreat experience and graduated as one of the best, maybe the best, Loppon of his class. We were talking about a Guru Rinpoche spot we both like a lot. He said he hoped to do retreat there later this year. I asked what he would practice, he answered "Ngondro".