Today I am going to conclude my series of posts on the “Essence of Buddhist Practice” which is encapsulated in the three noble principles which are, for example, presented in chapter five of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I actually think there is a general principle behind the framework of these three noble principles that could be applied to help us get benefit from whatever we are doing.
For example if we feel the need to improve our health we might decide that we want to learn yoga. At the beginning it is just an idea. We believe in it intellectually but part of us may have resistance and be stuck in old habits. So if want to become a successful yoga practitioner we need to begin by building our motivation and generate genuine enthusiasm. At the beginning of each exercise session we could motivate ourselves and remind ourselves why we are doing yoga by saying: “I am going to do yoga because I want to be healthy.” That motivates us to do yoga and put effort into the exercises. Then in the middle we need to know how practice the right way so it has the intended affect. At the end of the exercise you cool down to help your body integrate the benefits of your workout so they don’t get lost.
In the same way in spiritual practice we begin by reminding ourselves of the purpose of our practice, that we want to have a healthy pure mind and heart. This motivates our practice. In the middle we practice being free from grasping, the key point of how to free our mind, and then in the end we dedicate to make sure the benefits of our efforts do not get lost.
To recap a little, very essentially “Good in the beginning” is about beginning our practice with giving rise to a good motivation. We remind ourselves that we have Buddha nature and that to realize it will bring us lasting happiness and bring all our problems and suffering to an end once and for all. Inspired by this we direct our intention and effort to realizing and embodying our true nature. We also recognize that not just ourselves but all beings have this fundamental goodness and that all their problems and suffering come from not realizing it.
Right now, we don’t have the capacity to fully help them to come back to their true nature where they can find lasting happiness and freedom from all their suffering. That’s why first need to work with ourselves and overcome our own problems and develop all our qualities and capacities to the fullest. Therefore we ennoble our motivation by giving rise to the wish or commitment that we work for our own liberation in order to be able to help all sentient beings.
The thought of helping all sentient beings might feel overwhelming right now but actually once we have realized our true nature, our Buddha nature, we will have the capacity to help all. So we say “once I get there then myself then I will help everyone else too.”
My teacher Sogyal Rinpoche once said that motivation is not a static state of mind but a practice. It is something we keep deepening and developing all our life. Initially it might be more like a thought or idea that we are enthusiastic about. As we go along we might learn to reconnect with a glimpse of our transcendent nature every time we give rise to the motivation. This might then give rise to a deep wish to learn to completely embody it and help all other sentient beings to do the same. Thus motivation can become something that really energizes us in our practice. Sometimes I like to think of generating my motivation as connecting with a momentum towards my goal, awakening, like entering into the powerful current of a large river that is flowing towards the ocean.
“Good in the middle” is about what we need to do in our practice so that it will bring us closer to our goal of recognizing the nature of our mind and embodying our true nature. The essence of such genuine practice is an attitude of non-grasping which is inspired by the realization of the nature of mind. Although we cannot completely actualize this at the moment, practically speaking we can work towards this by learning to be present in the face of whatever arises and not holding onto our thoughts and emotions. That’s why the essence of “Good in the middle” is to be free of grasping.
At the end we need to dedicate our practice. This ensures that our efforts will not be wasted. Practicing could be compared to working in order to earn money. Once we are paid we need to make sure our money is safe. If we just carry it around in our wallet, there is a danger of loosing it. The world is a dangerous place and we might get robbed, too. That’s why it is best to put our hard earned money into a bank account. It would be even better to invest it, ideally in a way that is completely safe yet increases our savings.
The spiritual dimension is similar. We can loose the merit, the positive power and benefit of practice, for example when we get overcome by negative emotions like anger. That’s why it is said to be so important to dedicate our practice. What we dedicate is the effort we made with the good intention that we established at the beginning. Merit is created regardless of whether we feel our practice was good and successful or not. Even if we feel our practice was not good, we made an effort if only just having the intention to practice. We purified our mind a little, and this created some positive energy or momentum.
Dedicating our practice to the enlightenment of all beings is said to be like adding a drop of water to the ocean of merit of all beings. Our little drop will merge with the ocean and as long as the ocean exists it will remain. It is also said that when we do that, our merit will keep increasing by itself. It is the ultimate version of a completely safe investment with an amazing return rate. That’s why “Good at the End” is described as sealing the practice by dedicating the merit.
Merit is like the fuel for our spiritual practice. Enlightenment is perfect wisdom, the complete realization of the deathless unending nature of mind. It might seem almost unattainable. It is not unreachable but it is definitely a far journey and that’s why we need a lot of fuel to get to our destination. We also need to ensure that we don’t loose the fruit of our efforts on the way. It may actually take many lifetimes to attain enlightenment. It is so wonderful that dedication even ensures that the positive effort that we made in our practice creates a momentum and energy for our path which continues if necessary beyond this life. Therefore we need to be very good at accumulating merit.
Our motivation is said to be a very powerful skillful means that help us get rich in merit very quickly. Why? We give rise to an immeasurable aspiration to bring all beings to enlightenment. It is said because our attitude is immeasurable and the sentient beings we direct it to are limitless, the result will also be immeasurable.
The teachings tell us that all that is required to attain enlightenment is to purify obscurations and accumulate merit and wisdom. We already have the wisdom to recognize our Buddha nature perfectly within us but it is presently covered up. The path is about reawakening this understanding, about reconnecting with our inherent wisdom. So what do we need to do? Simply purify all our obscurations. There is nothing to get. We just need to get rid of obscuration. But we cannot simply reconnect with this inherent wisdom. To reveal it we need to make a sustained effort. We need to build momentum, through generating a strong positive motivation and engaging in positive actions. That’s why we need both merit and wisdom.
It is often said that the criteria of whether a teaching or practice is a genuine Buddhist practice is whether the two accumulations of merit and wisdom are present. Accumulating merit and wisdom are all that is need to awaken! These two elements need to be present in everything we do on our spiritual path. The three noble principles help us to ensure that these two principles are present in our practice. It is said that to attain complete enlightenment more than this is not necessary but less than this is incomplete!
Thus the three noble principles are a wonderful way to really ennoble our practice and ensure that there is genuine spiritual benefit from it! As long as our practice has these elements it will bring us closer to awakening, even if we only practice for one minute. That’s why I find these three noble principles so amazing and beautiful. Even when I don’t manage to practice much I can at least try to establish these three principles in a meaningful way. The Dalai Lama often advises spiritual practitioners to check their motivation in the morning and in the evening to check their actions.” And during the day we can try to do our best to avoid harming and doing what is best for ourselves and others.