I arrived in Munich a few days ago after a week of traveling, and have been trying to rest and recover from the massive jet lag. I had hoped to make a few posts once I am here in Munich, and I have plenty of notes from my reflections, but I got stuck trying to get them finished. The main topic I have been reflecting on recently was how to clarify my practice. However, I had so many different thoughts about it that I didn’t know where to start or how to all put them into one coherent post. I decided to just wait and see. Finally I got fed up and decided to get this post written up. That approach worked, but it took me a couple of days to get it completed.
The reason I have been thinking so much about how to clarify and simplify my practice and how to be clear about the main points of the teachings is that I often get stuck and overwhelmed with all the details of the different teachings and practices. When that happens my practice feels incomplete and I yearn to bring everything into a clear and simple main point. At these times I usually ask myself questions like: What are the most important points about practice? How can I make sure that my practice will be successful?
There are two things that stand out for me: The right motivation and a clear understanding of the teachings
The right motivation
I believe that if I can be clear about my motivation, I won’t follow the path half heartedly. If one does something whole heartedly one will be much more effective and successful. That’s why I try to understand clearly why I am practicing and where I want to get to with my practice. The spiritual path seems like a journey to me. A journey requires having a goal or destination. In order to become interested in the journey, and to make a decision to embark on it, one needs to know where one wants to go and be motivated to do so through understanding the benefits of reaching the destination. The advantages of getting there need to have enough value to create an interest in leaving home.
The way I look at it, a good motivation needs begin with convincing reasons that practice will lead to a better way of being, and confidence that the path towards that goal will work, e.g. that it will bring me to where I want to get to. Then I need to know how to travel the path and have all that is needed to make the journey successfully. For example, if you want to travel through a desert you need a map, fuel, food, water, the right clothes etc.
With respect to my spiritual path, what helps me to be motivated is on the one hand to look at and acknowledge the dissatisfaction and shortcomings of my present way of being and on the other hand to see the potential of becoming free and bringing suffering to an end once and for all. When I reflect on this, I first remind myself of the shortcomings of my present life, how my present approach to happiness is flawed, and how futile my unceasing chase of short-lived pleasure and happiness is. It is hard to let go of the fantasy that these transient states of feeling good will last, if I just keep trying!
Then, I contemplate on the wonderful message of the teachings of the Buddha which tells us that there is the possibility of a lasting happiness, of freedom from suffering, and most of all that we all have the potential to awaken and recognize and embody our true nature.
Another important aspect of the motivation is to go beyond my self-centered concerns and wish to bring all beings to enlightenment. Usually I just want to be happy myself. When I see others people’s ignorance and suffering I forget that they want to be happy as a I do, and that I am confused and suffering, just like they are, in my own ways.
I also find it helpful to consciously acknowledge and remind myself that what all of us living beings share in common is our wish for happiness. Sometimes the wish to bring all beings to enlightenment feels contrived to me. It seems like I am trying to impose this on all these other beings. But actually, when I reflect on this, it becomes clear that deep down, whether they know it or not, all beings wish for this lasting happiness of enlightenment. We are all together in this mess of samsara. So, isn’t the right thing to do to want all beings to become free of suffering and delusion?
It is also not enough to just have a nice wish that all beings may awaken from ignorance and become free of suffering once and for all. It has to be more than a fleeting feeling or thought, but something that I serious and passionately feel needs to come true. It is said in the teachings that I need to go even one step further and personally commit to make this happen. The attitude here is to say to myself, “if need be I will get this done all on my own!”
I find this a very noble and rich motivation to aspire to. There is so much contained in it:
– Renunciation, which is the determination to be free and the willingness to give up the deceiving promises of samsara.
– Refuge, which includes a deep confidence that we have the Buddha nature, a conviction that realizing it will bring lasting freedom and happiness, and dedicating one’s life to this goal. We take refuge in the path that the Buddha has shown.
– Bodhichitta, which is the wish to bring all beings to enlightenment.
For me, the essence of this motivation is to make awakening my goal and, more importantly, to do this not in self-centered way just for myself but extend my innate capacity to care to all living beings.
Understanding the main point of practice
The second important point that comes to my mind with respect to practice is the need to have a clear understanding of the goal of practice: enlightenment, realizing Buddha nature or the nature of mind, however you want to call it. A crucial point to understand here is that Buddha nature refers to the natural state of how things are and implies a perfection already inherent in the ground of my being. It is not something that needs to be created or fabricated, because the teachings say that my fundamental nature is already perfectly present, although unfortunately it is presently obscured. Because this perfection is already naturally present, all that is needed for attaining enlightenment is to remove the obscurations.
With this understanding practice is no longer about getting or gaining something but about removing the obscurations. One of my teachers often says that Buddhist practice is not about getting something but to get rid of! The point is to get rid of obscurations and ignorance and not to gain knowledge or “creating” a state of enlightenment. We are looking to uncover something that we already have. There is nothing to grasp at or to get!
The essence of Buddhist practice is often described as nothing more than to purify obscurations and to accumulate merit and wisdom. Merit is the power, energy and momentum that comes from the positive actions we engage in on the path. Wisdom is not something we can gain but is naturally revealed as the obscurations are purified and the veils that cause misunderstanding and ignorance are removed. (Of course, initially we need to cultivate some conceptual understanding.)
Reflecting on Buddha nature this way also reminds me that my fundamental nature is not touched or stained by my confusion, faults, negative actions etc. That’s really good news, isn’t it! And it also helps me to understand relative reality better, that everything is impermanent and nothing has inherent existence!
If you understand how the nature of reality truly is, this is said to give rise to an attitude of non-grasping. If I understand correctly, the key point of understanding how to practice is this attitude of non-grasping.
There is a final point. We begin with a noble motivation, then practice with an attitude of non-grasping and at the end of the practice we need to dedicate all our efforts and all the benefit they might bring to the benefit and ultimately the enlightenment of all beings.
When I reflected on the main points of practice, somewhere along I realized that my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche had already told them to me many times what is essential to have in my practice and also wrote about them in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:
“In the teaching of Buddha, we say there are three things that make all the difference between your meditation being merely a way of bringing temporary relaxation, peace, and bliss, or of becoming a powerful cause for your enlightenment and the enlightenment of others. We call them: “Good in the Beginning, Good in the Middle, and Good at the End. …
These three sacred principles–the skillful motivation, the attitude of non-grasping that secures the practice, and the dedication that seals it–are what make your meditation truly enlightening and powerful. They have been beautifully described by the great Tibetan master Longchenpa as “the heart, the eye, and the life-force of true practice.” As Nyoshul Khenpo says: “To accomplish complete enlightenment, more than this is not necessary: but less than this is incomplete.”
— from chapter 5 of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Looking at this teaching on the three noble principles helped me fill a lot of gaps in my own reflection. I can definitely say that reflecting like this helped me to clarify and simplify my understanding of the teachings and what practice is about. But when I read my notes again afterward I realized that my attempt to essentialise probably still reads quite complex and complicated. Sorry! In a way, it should be no surprise: Aren’t we human beings fantastically complicated, complex and messed up! Don’t the teachings be rich to address and entangle all this confusion? However, while these reflections still helped me to get things clearer in mind, it is probably the reflecting that helps to clarify and not the reading the result. So maybe everyone has to reflect on this themselves!