Since the aim of Buddhist practice is to attain enlightenment, it might be good to ask: What is enlightenment? Enlightenment is a very misunderstood and misused word in the modern world. Often it is talked about as some far out special experience. But actually, as I understand it, the heart of enlightenment is just about becoming a true human being. What might it be like? Maybe the sense of clarity, wisdom, peace and warmheartedness that we can feel in the presence of a realized beings can give us a taste of what enlightenment might be like. For example, I know of many people, including myself, who had this kind of experience in the presence of the Dalai Lama. I have also personally experienced this in the presence of my teachers many times. These teachers convey the sense that enlightenment is something natural and undramatic.
My teacher Sogyal Rinpoche is not easily impressed when students have dramatic experiences in their spiritual practice. There is nothing wrong with having experiences. They are part of spiritual practice. My teacher tells us again and again that it is very important to stay grounded and not get attached to them. Over the years I have seen how Sogyal Rinpoche trains us by giving us a deep experiences of the truth of the teachings that is beyond concepts and, but is cutting again and again our attachment to the more dramatic emotional and conceptual aspect of experiences like bliss, clarity and absence of thoughts. He has a special was conveying a personal experience of our nature that is beyond words or description. On the one hand, he is showing this again and again. On the other hand, he tirelessly works with our egos and habits and cuts every aspect of solidifying these experiences or getting attached to them. What really impresses him is when someone’s basic character changes a little to the better. That may sound simple, but is not an easy task!
He once told us about his predecessor Tertön Sogyal, who was the teacher to the 13th Dalai Lama. He was a very powerful master who was known for his miracles. However, Tertön Sogyal was not impressed if someone was able to make a ceiling into floor or fire into water. He was impressed if someone was able to purify one negative emotion. Then he considered that person a really miraculous person. My teacher explained that this is like saying I take my hat off to someone who’s able to transform one negative emotion. The teachings say if you’re able to transform one negative emotion into wisdom, then all the Buddhas will come and prostrate to you.
Once Sogyal Rinpoche asked a student of another teacher who had just completed a three year retreat about what she had realized. She told him that she had hoped to change more, but after the retreat she noticed that she found it easier to live with the things she had hoped to change in herself. Rinpoche was very impressed by that person’s accomplishment.
I recently returned to Lerab Ling, the Rigpa retreat center in France where about 300 people had spent three years virtually in seclusion to follow an extensive program of study and practice. Many great teachers came and visited us during that time. For example, Tsoknyi Rinponche, a well known Dzogchen teacher, visited us several times during the retreat and gave us some very special teachings and advice. On one of his visits he walked to the top of the hill that overlooks the land where we stayed. He was very moved. The way he said it was that he “cried inside” because he was so happy to see so many people devote themselves to spiritual practice and use their precious human birth so meaningfully.
I was at the retreat for the entire period, but because of health problems unfortunately I wasn’t able to participate as fully as I had wished. I was a little sad about that at the end because, like the person in the story above, I had hoped to accomplish more and change a little more than I felt I did. When the program concluded, I remember remarking to myself one day that I didn’t really see a lot of change in my friends either. I was a little disappointed and thought to myself that although three years are quite a long time and we genuinely tried to change, apparently its was not enough time to accomplish much. This was a humbling observation which made me realize how difficult it is to change. However, it did not diminish my trust in the Buddhist teachings. It just made me realize we need to keep practicing more.
When I came back this summer I saw a lot of my friends for the first time after being away for 9 months. Most of them I have known for many years. Over time I had gotten to know all their little human quirks and idiosyncrasies that make our personal character, but also cause a lot of the drama in our lives. Initially I didn’t see a lot of obvious changes. After a few days it began to strike me that many of my friends, seemed more simple and natural. A lot of their quirks had vanished, their faces were more clear and they radiated a quiet natural happiness and contentment. It made me very happy to see that they had obviously become more decent genuine human beings. It gave me hope that we can all change.
Here is a passage from chapter four of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche from a section entitled “The Promise of Enlightenment”:
“Enlightenment, as I have said, is real; and each of us, whoever we are, can in the right circumstances and with the right training realize the nature of mind and so know in us what is deathless and eternally pure. This is the promise of all the mystical traditions of the world, and it has been fulfilled and is being fulfilled in countless thousands of human lives.
The wonder of this promise is that it is something not exotic, not fantastic, not for an elite, but for all of humanity; and when we realize it, the masters tell us, it is unexpectedly ordinary. Spiritual truth is not something elaborate and esoteric, it is in fact profound common sense. When you realize the nature of mind, layers of confusion peel away. You don’t actually “become” a buddha, you simply cease, slowly, to be deluded. And being a buddha is not being some omnipotent spiritual superman, but becoming at last a true human being.”
In one of my next posts I want to write about the essence of Buddhist practice. What do we need to so that our practice is genuine authentic practice which will successfully bring us to enlightenment.