Is there a common ground among different traditions of meditation?

I wrote a guest post on this topic on the new “What Meditation Really Is” website. Click here.

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How can we know a spiritual teacher is trustworthy?

On the spiritual path, we need teachers we can trust, and who will guide us correctly and not leads us into deeper confusion. So what is the main criteria for a qualified teacher?  How can we tell whether the teacher is a trustworthy, good person and not someone who is interested in their personal gain? A group of Western Buddhist teachers once asked Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche how to become a lama. By the way, the word ‘Lama’ is a Tibetan word which refers to teachers in the Tibetan tradition. In his usual simplicity he simply replied: “If your motivation is good!”

The reason why motivation is so important is explained in the teachings on karma. The main factor that makes an action positive or negative is the motivation and intention behind it. A positive action is considered to be something that is done with pure motivation and without attachment and aversion in the mind. The main message of the teachings on karma is therefore to always have a pure mind and good intention. I wrote a lot about karma recently if you are interested in reflecting more about this topic.

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche

The most important quality of a teacher is that their motivation is pure. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche writes “that true teachers are kind, compassionate, tireless in their desire to share whatever wisdom they have acquired from their masters, never abuse or manipulate their students under any circumstances, never under any circumstances abandon them, serve not their own ends but the greatness of the teachings, and always remain humble. Real trust can and should only grow toward someone whom you come to know, over time, embodies all these qualities. You will find that this trust becomes the ground of your life, there to support you through all the difficulties of life and death.”

Determining if a teacher truly has good motivation is not easy, but if you keep watching for some time with your eyes and heart open it should become clear. The main message of the teachings on karma is that you need to look at the big picture. If you zoom in on every little action and try to apply some fixed standards you are missing the point. Over time you will get a sense of whether a teacher has a pure heart and motivation. If something rotten and foul smelling is wrapped up very nicely, it may look good for a while, but eventually the packet will start smelling! You don’t want to buy donkey meat wrapped in a deerskin that is sold as venison, as they say in Tibet.

A certain degree of realization is also important. Nyoshul Khenpo’s answer to the group of teachers that a pure motivation was the most important quality of a teacher was very simple but also very profound. A good motivation is not easy. It is more than just an occasional emotional feeling of a good heart. It must be something stable. This is not possible unless you have overcome your own negative emotions. Otherwise selfish concerns might keep creeping in! This requires wisdom, because without realization of the nature of reality it is not possible to truly become free of negative emotions.

Besides developing trust that a teacher’s motivation is good, we need to come to a deep personal confidence and conviction that the teacher has realized the essence of what they are teaching. They don’t have to be enlightened but they need to have a personal experience of the truth of the teaching and know how to convey that.

Walking the talk

We should also ask whether they embody and live the teachings. As you get to know your teacher ask yourself: How do they react when they are done wrong, harmed or criticized? Do they hold malice in their heart? Do they respond in kind? Teachers might choose not defend themselves against criticism. While they might always be eager to resolve any complaint with anyone personally, they might never respond to criticism or accusations in public.

When asked for advice on how to respond to accusations Buddhist teachers often advice not to respond. They say: “Time will tell! The dust will blow away and the gold will remain.” This is based on the Buddhist approach to not exacerbate conflict and confrontation. Responding often just adds fuel to the fire. Anger cannot overcome anger. Only love, compassion and patience can. My teachers say that, when criticized, it is best to listen. They advice to try to understand the other person’s point of view, and use it as an opportunity to keep learning how to avoid misunderstanding in the future. In the modern world we tend to take silence as an admission of guilt. So we need to be open to the possibility that the silence is golden!

That a teacher is genuine doesn’t mean that they never make the slightest mistakes or that you will never have any doubts or questions. Even if we always act with the purest motivation, sometimes the result will be good and sometimes it will not work out. When things don’t work out, we may have a part in failure. Maybe we were unskillful, made an error in judgment. For example, my teacher sometimes says that he is always learning and often amazed to discover how deep seated people’s problems and confusions are. So even if you are with a genuine teacher, who is realized and a very good person and is acting with best intentions, things may not always work out perfectly. That is the nature of life, as long as we are in samsara!

So when we check out a teacher, we cannot just look at how the actions look from the outside. That is neither objective nor reliable. We also need to look at the motivation behind them. Teachers might sometimes do things that you or other people think is not right. We need to keep in mind that this is a very subjective matter. It depends on our perception, which is colored by our conditioning, expectations, and opinions. When different people look at the same actions it is possible that everyone comes up with a different conclusion. If you expect every action to appear as perfect and pure then you will continuously find faults. That’s why the main point is to look at the big picture.

Sogyal Rinpoche

Concluding that a teacher is genuine means having confidence that fundamentally they are OK. For this you need to look at the big picture. If you zoom in too much with a magnifying glass you miss the point and will find lots of little faults that are not relevant to the question of whether they are qualified authentic teachers. Even with the best teacher, you might not agree with or understand every little thing they do, but you can trust them because you know they will never let you down on your spiritual path.

Like I said above, deep confidence and trust can sometimes happen very quickly. However, we should not hesitate to take as much time as we need to come to a conclusion about this. The most important point with this is to rely on our personal experience, our heart and inner wisdom, more than our superficial reactions and critical judgments. A teacher that pushes our buttons and makes us face our stuff may actually be much better for us than a teacher who makes us feel good all the time.

Most of all, it is not about just finding any authentic teaching or teacher, but the one that is right for you. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche advises to “Read the great spiritual books of all the traditions, come to some understanding of what the masters might mean by liberation and enlightenment, and find out which approach to absolute reality really attracts and suits you most. Exercise in your search as much discernment as you can; the spiritual path demands more intelligence, more sober understanding, more subtle powers of discrimination than any other discipline, because the highest truth is at stake. Use your common sense at every moment.”

But when we meet a spiritual teacher, I think it is also good to give them a chance. The fact that we met them usually means that we have some kind of connection. Often we have the karma to meet a spiritual teaching or a teacher, but then we need to create the karma to continue. This requires perseverance and open-mindedness. Things are never going to “perfect”. For example, if we find a rare and excellent restaurant with delicious healthy food, wouldn’t it be a pity if we leave because we don’t like the color the wall is painted, or the design of the dishes … just to end up in a greasy burger joint!

The spiritual path is not easy and there are going to be difficulties, doubts or crisis of faith. Whatever challenges you have with a teacher or spiritual path, I always say to my friends the main thing is to not give up on the spiritual path. It is so precious to meet spiritual teachings in our crazy modern world. So don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater! So my most important advice to anyone would be to never give up because of disappointments and challenges and to keep searching for a teacher and a path that works for you. But also don’t be too perfectionistic! Things will never be exactly the way you would like them. And life is too short to waste time. That’s why I tried to highlight what I find to be the most important qualities of an authentic teacher.

If you would like to reflect on this more I suggest that you read Chapter Nine in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. It has a wealth of advice on this topic.

This is the second of a three part series on this topic. The first post was: “What makes an authentic spiritual teacher?” and the third is  “A sign of an authentic spiritual teacher is devotion”.

Posted in Buddhism, Western Buddhism, zz Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, zz Sogyal Rinpoche | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

What makes an authentic spiritual teacher?

How do you know if a teacher is trustworthy and genuine? This is a question I have reflected on quite a lot in the last few months. I thought this would be a good theme to conclude the series of posts on the essence of Buddhism that I have been writing over the last few months.

If we seriously want to follow a spiritual path we need teachers! And, when choosing a teacher, it is important to be concerned, diligent and cautious. In the following I am going to share some personal reflection on what I have learned from the teachings in my tradition about how we can ensure that we will not be mislead or taken advantage of on our spiritual journey.

These days, I don’t think it is not so easy to determine who is a genuine spiritual teacher. There are so many teachers and traditions. Everyone you ask seems to have a different opinion of who is a good teacher and who not. There is also almost no teacher that does not have some people criticizing them. I find this puzzling and have reflected about this a bit. How can that be?

Maybe this is because most spiritual teachers in the modern world live in the midst of us. They do not live in remote isolated places or secluded monastic communities. They live ordinary lives and have not renounced being involved in the world and its pleasures. I personally think that it is very beneficial when teachers lives like you and me. Teachers like that get to understand the challenges of modern life from personal experience. Then, when we ask them for advice they know what we are dealing with from their own experience.

However, it makes it more difficult to determine if a teacher is genuine. When we see them dealing with the same dramas of life that we experience, it no longer fits our idealistic notion of spirituality. Why? Because it is very difficult to see whether inwardly they are dealing with these dramas like ordinary people or not. Looking from outside, it is often very difficult to distinguish whether someone is an ordinary deluded person or an accomplished spiritual practitioner who is living his life, going through emotions, and interacting in his relationships with a genuine spiritual perspective.

The snowy cave where Patrul Rinpoche wrote the Words of My Perfect Teacher is situated at the tree-line, just below the massive glacier in this photo.

Even in 19th century Tibet, which we think of nowadays as a spiritual heaven, the great master Patrul Rinpoche wrote: “The extraordinary qualities of great beings who hide their nature escapes ordinary people like us, despite our best efforts in examining them. On the other hand, even ordinary charlatans are expert at deceiving others by behaving like saints.” (from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal; Rinpoche)

I am not proposing that we shouldn’t care whether we see faults in a teacher.  But I think what really matters is what kind of faults we see. There are some aspects to all of us, including spiritual teachers, that are a matter of perception. Some people will like us, some will not. Some will criticize what we do, others will praise the very same actions. I think when we want to determine if someone is an authentic and trustworthy teacher, we need to look beyond that.

So how do we figure out who is trustworthy and able to guide us on an authentic path? In my tradition, there is actually a lot of guidance on how to examine a teacher. The good news is that we don’t have to rush! We can take our time. In the beginning, the most important thing is to focus on the teaching and ensure that it is authentic. The first step is to begin to learn the basic teachings of the tradition we have chosen to explore. This doesn’t require a deep commitment to a teacher. As long as the teachings are authentic you will benefit.

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche says: “It cannot be stressed too often that it is the truth of the teaching which is all-important, and never the personality of the teacher. This is why Buddha reminded us in the “Four Reliances”:

Rely on the message of the teacher, not on 
his personality;

Rely on the meaning, not just on the words;

Rely on the real meaning, not on the 
provisional one;

Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary, judgmental mind.”

Here are three criteria that I have personally found very useful to guide me step-by-step through the process of determining the authenticity of the teaching and the teacher: authentic training, good credential and our personal experience of their character and realization.

Authentic training
When we meet a spiritual teaching and consider studying it, we need to look at the training and education of the person who is teaching it. Have they been trained well? Are they qualified to explain the teaching of their tradition? To answer this we can begin by asking questions like: Who have they studied with? How long have they studied?

What you want to look for is a someone who has personally been trained and guided by a good teacher for a long time. The greatest teachers keep being students their whole life. When their teachers pass away they continue to study with their successors. However, watch out! An impressive list of teachers is not enough. These days many people call themselves students of a teacher even though they have only come to a few public teachings and that teacher does not know them personally at all.

If you find a teacher that has been trained well you can be sure that you are going to learn something useful and authentic. That’s a good start. You are not going to be mislead or waste your time.

Good credentials
Once you get started you can then take your time to verify the credentials of the teacher more thoroughly. This can be tricky. It might take a while of actually being around. Have you ever seen a spiritual bio that doesn’t make it sound like the teacher is authentic? These days, it is very easy for any teacher to get a photo of an audience with a respected teacher. It is also easy to quote what another respected teacher might have said to them out of context, to make it sound like an endorsement and authentication.

At best, a teacher would be authenticated by the head of their tradition, or at least a really respected senior teacher. In my tradition, ideally that would be the Dalai Lama or one of the heads of the other schools. When teachers like these keep visiting your teacher’s center and speak highly of him or her, then you can be quite certain he or she is a genuine trustworthy teacher. Over a period of time observe things like: Does your teacher invite other teachers? Is there some consistency and continuity in these visits? Or is it just a random stream of visiting teachers?

Usually, when we begin to explore a tradition there shouldn’t be any pressure to make a serious commitment. It is only later on, when we decide to follow a path more seriously, that students are often asked to make a commitment. Even more than to a person or a tradition, this is a commitment to the truth, to following the path until you realize it.

Dudjom Rinpoche

Before we make that kind of deeper commitment we need to examine the teacher and arrive at a personal conviction that he is trustworthy guide. For some people this can be very fast. I remember that Sogyal Rinpoche once told his students that after receiving just one teaching from Dudjom Rinpoche — who then became one of his main teachers — he had unshakable confidence in him as being a trustworthy realized teacher. For other people this might take a long time and require going through a thorough process of examination and reflection.

Being trained and having good credentials is important but it is not enough. In my tradition it is not even sufficient to be recognized as an incarnation of a great spiritual teacher.  It just means such a person has a potential but isn’t enough to determine that they are a trustworthy teacher. Unless they accomplish the practice and embody it, that potential will not be fully manifest.

How to judge a teacher’s character
Being able to judge a teacher’s character requires that we also know ourselves to a certain extent. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche advises us to “come to the path as humorously aware as possible of the baggage you will be bringing with you: your lacks, fantasies, failings, and projections.”

I think we often have a fantasy of how working with or getting to know a teacher more closely should be. For example, when we watch a Kung Fu movie and see the hardship that the master puts the student through, the idea that the spiritual path is hard seems very romantic. But when we get to know a teacher and he starts working with us in a personal way it is a different story. As soon our feelings get hurt a little, maybe just because of feeling ignored or not listened to a little, that whole perspective goes out of the window. We take it personally and blame the teacher for our pain or disappointment. We feel it is not right and that they made us feel bad. At this time, we need to know our own emotional baggage and sensitivities. Only then will we be able to take a step back. We might then discover that they are trying to show us our sensitive buttons (and the stuff behind them) so that we can recognize heal and transform these.

It is quite difficult to find teachers that have all the qualities that I have writing about here. Having good credential is a good indication, but if you don’t have them it doesn’t necessarily mean you are not a good teacher. My teachers have also explained that a good character and a pure heart is actually the most important quality. They said that if a teacher has Bodhichitta, the compassionate wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, even if they are not as learned as would be ideal, you will still benefit. But if someone doesn’t have a good heart and their motivation is not pure, then they can definitely not be a trustworthy teacher.

In my next two post “How can we know a spiritual teacher is trustworthy?” and  “A sign of an authentic spiritual teacher is devotion” I will write more about this topic.

Posted in Buddhism, Western Buddhism, zz Dudjom Rinpoche, zz Patrul Rinpoche, zz Sogyal Rinpoche | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

How can we live a meaningful life?

In my last post I asked: What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? And I wondered whether these were actually good questions to ask. Life is. We are here! The world around us is here! So, what is the point of asking? I suggested that it might be better to ask “How can we live meaningfully?” And I quoted something the Dalai Lama said: “Personally, I believe that the purpose of our existence is to seek happiness, to seek a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.”

I enjoyed reflecting more on this quote. I think we all are looking for fulfillment and satisfaction. For me the million dollar question is how and where we are looking for it. Are we looking for it wisely or are we doing it in ways that are bound to be unsuccessful and lead to suffering instead of the happiness we are looking for.

In my experience, when I look for happiness and satisfaction outside, it becomes an endless chase. There are so many things that promise happiness: sense pleasures, gain, success, being praised by others, feeling good about how others think of me. Every time I succeed with one of these, it gives me a little high of feeling good. But then the buzz wears off very quickly. It seems to become an addiction to short moments of feeling good.

The teachings even warn of the danger of looking for this ordinary happiness in spiritual teachings. I often catch myself practicing just to feel good! We might think we are following a spiritual path, but if we have this kind of ordinary motivation, it doesn’t qualify as genuine spiritual practice. It is said that it will only bring very ordinary short-lived results.

A walk ... by Flickr user Katarina 2353

For me living a meaningful life boils down to trying to live a spiritual life and becoming a spiritual person. To be a truly spiritual person requires to have a clear idea of a higher purpose. And you need to actually use your life to work towards this purpose.

The wise way of finding happiness and fulfillment seems to me to use this life to develop positive qualities, like wisdom, love and compassion. As Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, one of my teachers, used to say, the aim of Buddhist practice is to make our heart and mind bigger. I try to remind myself often to use my life to personally grow and to learn to become more awake, present, wise and tolerant. To love and help others. To try to discover what is really true about this world. To try to to discover the essence of my being that is beyond life and death. Plus there is an endless list of wonderful qualities to embody and deep questions to answer.

It might seem an unreachable goal, but my teachers emphasize that it possible to practice this while living a “normal” life and taking care of our responsibilities in the world. I think that the bottom line is that we need to understand that there is something deeper to life beyond or ordinary activities. If we live with that understanding it will give us a sense of meaning and fulfillment. It doesn’t have to be something esoteric. We don’t have to feel we need to be a spiritual super athlete to do it. We also don’t need to feel we need to be perfect at it.

But we need to work with it and make an effort. It is not just something we can think of or do occasionally, whenever we feel like it. I know teachers that teach a very simple path of “love and light” but even they tell you that they think of it constantly every moment of their life. The point is to work with whatever your practice is. To keep trying to understand it more deeply, and to keep practicing so we get better.

Here is a simple advice on how to practice in life, that came to my mind recently. My teacher Sogyal Rinpoche often describes the essence of meditation as “being spacious.” He uses this term to describe what it feels like when are able to just naturally be.  And he says that when we are spacious we can get a taste of the essence of our being, our true nature. So maybe the answer to how we can live a meaningful life can be boiled down to practicing “being spacious”. … but not just occasionally, when we feel like it.

This is part 3 of a series of three posts on this topic:

Part 1: The Meaning of Life

Part 2: Is there a satisfying answer to “What is the Meaning of Life”?

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Is there a satisfying answer to “What is the Meaning of Life”?

I have been reflecting on the meaning of life a lot recently. I read and thought about many possible answers from many different spiritual traditions. They all look at the meaning and purpose of life in different ways but there is a common theme that there is a deeper truth of existence and that the purpose of life is learning to understand and embodying that truth fully.

It is expressed in so many ways: To discover what is true about ourselves and the world. To develop wisdom, love and compassion. To make our heart and mind bigger. To learn, to love and to help others. To live in the eternal love of the universe. Enlightenment. Becoming one with God. Realizing our divine nature. Recognizing the essence of our being that is beyond birth and death e.t.c. .. it seems the list could go on forever!

There seems to be such an amazing variety of profound answers. However, I find that whenever someone unexpectedly springs the question on me, I am usually blank for a moment. Why? I am lost for words. Maybe I am hesitating because I am still trying to figure it out and don’t want to pretend I have fully understood it by giving a clear and confident sounding answer. Maybe because I feel there is no fully satisfactory answer that could fully expresses the meaning of life.

Starfish

Sometimes I wonder whether “what is the meaning of life?” is actually a question that needs to be answered. I am not saying it is not important to ask the question. I myself reflect on it a lot. But maybe we shouldn’t try to answer it in words. Life just is … we are alive … we are aware .. we perceive phenomena … ourselves and the world we live in it ….. it is mysterious and amazing that we and the universe exist ….

I think if we are in harmony with existence then there naturally is a sense of the meaning of life. The meaning of life needs to be experienced. Words can point to it but they are only like the finger pointing towards the moon and not the moon itself.

I have come to the conclusion that whenever this question becomes a burning personal question and an issue it shows that something has gone wrong. When it is a burning question then no intellectual answer will help. If it is not a burning question then having an answer is not so important. So I think that more than coming up with a good sounding answer , when this question troubles me is to figure out why it is haunting me. It is about finding and solving the problem that gave rise to the question.
I believe the meaning of life has to be felt deep inside. How? By being in touch with ourselves and feeling connected with the world around us. Whenever I have a moment of experiencing this, I find there is a sense of fulfillment and inner peace and happiness.

From the point of view of the Buddhist teachings the problem could be described as not being in touch with our true selves and not seeing the world as it is. The root cause of our problems is not understanding who or what we truly are. The term that is used is ignorance. When we are in touch with our true being then wisdom, love, compassion, and an amazing capacity to live and act naturally rise.
Recently I came across this quote by the Dalai Lama who said: “Personally, I believe that the purpose of our existence is to seek happiness, to seek a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.”

I believe we can find this sense of fulfillment by using our life to discover who we truly are. It sounds simple but it not easy. It is a life long journey of discovery and takes effort working with ourselves, training our minds. we have to reflect, search, take to heart and integrate the answers we come up with into our being. It takes work and we have to do it. Only we can do it!

Maybe instead of asking “What is the meaning of life” it would be better to ask “What does it mean to live a meaningful life?” For me it means that the moment I wake up in the morning I begin the day by being grateful that I have spiritual teachings that are guiding me. Then I resolve to use the day to discovering this meaning and living it. During the day I try to make an effort to bring it into my life. At the end of the day I take a moment to review. I look back how I did. And I dedicate my efforts to the benefit of all beings in the Universe, that my efforts may contribute to them all finding this sacred meaning.

This is part 2 of a series of three posts on this topic:

Part 1: The Meaning of Life

Part 3: How can we live a meaningful life?

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The Meaning of Life

Happy New Year!

Here is a good question to start the year: What is the meaning of life?

I suggest you stop reading for a moment and reflect what you would say if someone were to come up to you and ask you this question.

A scene from the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Have you ever read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy? It has a very interesting ultimate answer to “everything”. Watch it here .

After you watched this you will probably wonder what the ultimate computer is. Right?  You can read about that here … but essentially: the living super computer that is currently running a 10 million year program to figure out the ultimate question is the Earth! So maybe you and me are supposed to contribute to finding the answer. Some super intelligent species many million light years away is patiently waiting for the answer. So we better get to work!

If this has put you in the mood of reading about this question more seriously here is an article on “The Meaning of Life” on the wikipedia:

I will be writing more about this in a few days … don’t want to let down those aliens who are patiently waiting for answers.

This is part 1 of a series of three posts on this topic:

Part 2: Is there a satisfying answer to “What is the Meaning of Life”?

Part 3: How can we live a meaningful life?

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Christmas Afterthoughts

During the Holiday season I was invited a few times by friends from different spiritual traditions to celebrate Christmas. In the area where I live there is a tradition of Kirtan and it was the heart of many Christmas get togethers.

Kirtan is a form of devotional chanting which comes from  ancient India. It exists mainly in the Hindu tradition, but can also be found in  other religious traditions including some forms of Buddhism. It is based on the idea that people can cast aside the heavy burdens of ritual and caste, and the subtle complexities of philosophy, and simply express their overwhelming love for God through music, song  and chanting.

I enjoyed joining my friends. It was a heart opening spiritual experience. Some of the songs and chants were about Jesus, some about gods from the Hindu traditions and some even about enlightened beings from the Buddhist tradition like Tara, Avalokiteshvara and Amitabha.

Christ the Savior is born by Nikos Golfis

I found it especially inspiring to listen to the songs and prayers from the Christian tradition. It seemed to me that if we look at the bigger picture, the main message is not so different. Instead of seeing Christ as a person we can see him as a quality or aspect of our divine nature. Maybe the true meaning of the birth of Christ can be compared to the personal experience of our true nature in Buddhism.  Isn’t the essence Buddhism about awakening our inherent wisdom, love and compassion?

So I joined in the prayers with the wish that the gentle loving presence of enlightened awareness be born within me. It worked well for me. I am sure Jesus wouldn’t mind. My friends certainly didn’t!

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What is the Essence of the Spiritual Path?

I am between topics at the moment. Just finished a few posts on karma and want to write about what an authentic spiritual teacher is next. But the first post in this series is not quite finished and I want to give myself more time to reflect on it. So I decided to just write today about my reflections over the last few days.

I usually begin my day with reflecting what my practice and my spiritual path is about. I tend to ponder about a few topics like what the goal of my practice is, renunciation, refuge, Bodhichitta, happiness e.t.c.  The topics are always very similar but there seems to be an endless variety of ways to look at them.

A few days ago I found a very inspiring section in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying on the what the spiritual path is about. At the beginning of Chapter 9 : “The Spiritual Path” Sogyal Rinpoche writes:

“In the Sufi Master Rumi’s Table Talk, there is this fierce and pointed passage:

The master said there is one thing in this world which must never be forgotten. If you were to forget everything else, but were not to forget this, there would be no cause to worry, while if you remembered, performed and attended to everything else, but forgot that one thing, you would in fact have done nothing whatsoever. It is as if a king had sent you to a country to carry out one special, specific task. You go to the country and you perform a hundred other tasks, but if you have not performed the task you were sent for, it is as if you have performed nothing at all. So man has come into the world for a particular task, and that is his purpose. If he doesn’t perform it, he will have done nothing.

All the spiritual teachers of humanity have told us the same thing, that the purpose of life on earth is to achieve union with our fundamental, enlightened nature. The “task” for which the “king” has sent us into this strange, dark country is to realize and embody our true being. There is only one way to do this, and that is to undertake the spiritual journey, with all the ardor and intelligence, courage and resolve for transformation that we can muster.”

Rumi

The spiritual path is sometimes compared to an inner journey. I find this image very helpful. it seems to me that the way to give meaning to our life is to combine our outer journey with an inner journey towards becoming one with our divine nature, — our higher self, God, Buddha nature, or however we want to call it. This divine nature is already perfectly within us, but right now we have lost our connection with  it. That’s why our most important task is to reconnect with it.

For me the basis of spiritual practice is to see our potential to awaken and the shortcomings of our present way of life. This gives rise to renunciation. Usually renunciation means to leave behind worldly concerns but looking at it from another way we could say that it is about making our inner journey our priority.

When we actually begin the journey, in Buddhism the spiritual path begins with refuge. Refuge is about making a commitment to follow the path. We take refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha as our teacher and example, his teachings, the Dharma as the guidance on the path and the Sangha, the company of others who are turned towards virtue as our support.

The foundation of this is faith. Faith is about believing that this goal of union with our higher nature is achievable and that the path we are choosing to follow is leading to it. In my tradition it is emphasized that this is not a blind faith but an intelligent faith based on study, reflection, and reasoning. We test again and again through personal experience that what the teachings are saying is true and that the practice and path actually bring the result.

Refuge gives us protection from fear. When we realize that what we really are is much more than how we ordinarily see and think of ourselves, then we no longer need to fear suffering. The essence of our being can never be effected by external circumstances. However much we might try it can not be made better or more pure. And even our worst faults and suffering will not make it worse. Once we reach a full and unshakable confidence that our being is indestructible then we don’t even need to fear death any more. Thus taking our divine nature, or Buddha nature, as our refuge is the ultimate protection from fear.

Even though our nature is said to be perfect within us we need to make an effort to reconnect with it. It is a life long endeavor. We need to practice. Practice is about training and working with both mind and heart. To make our mind and heart bigger. To develop wisdom and compassion. It is about better understanding ourselves and the world around us and connecting with our good heart and fundamental goodness.

Shantideva a great Indian Buddhist saint and master famous for expounding the teachings on Bodhichitta

Besides understanding what practice is about the teachings also speak about the importance of having a good motivation. The best motivation is said to be Bodhichitta, the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Why? What keep us separated from our true nature is our self-centeredness and selfishness. It blinds us to seeing how things are and our connectedness with not only our own divine nature but also with others.  We get preoccupied with our own interests, endlessly wanting pleasure, gain, praise, being viewed favorably by others and endlessly fighting pain, loss, criticism, and being seen negatively by others. We are driven by attachment and aversion.

This kind of happiness is usually at the expense of others. Why? It requires attaining things that are limited. Only one person can be the best. If we want to be better than others need to be worse than us. If we eat the whole cake ourselves than there is nothing left for others. The actions we engage in to bring about this kind of happiness which is based on external circumstances causes harm and brings suffering to others. We may be following the laws and customs of our society but deep down we are not very concerned how our quest for happiness affect the well being and happiness of others and whether they cause harm. We are mainly interested in our own well being. Self-centeredness not only obscures our mind but also closes our heart.

The spiritual teachings tell us that true happiness is found through getting in touch and embodying our divine nature. When we realize that this nature is already perfect within us and that fundamentally all we need is already perfectly within us this brings us inner peace and contentment. We can relax. There is nothing to fight about. There is nothing we need to get from others. What is wonderful about this deeper happiness is that it does not negatively impact others. What we need to do to uncover our true nature can be done without harming others. On the contrary it brings them happiness. Because the more we get in touch with what we truly are the more love compassion understanding and wisdom we will be sharing with those around us.

That’s why the first step in our practice is to get in touch with our good heart — a deep sense of caring and love for others, love. Compassion is the best antidote to self-centeredness. When we begin we generate the wish to find a happiness that does not cause harm others and a commitment that once we have the capacity to help others we will help everyone to find the same lasting happiness.

When we have a good understanding and a good motivation it is said that practice is almost naturally accomplished and will help us progress towards true awakening.

Posted in Bodhicitta, Buddhism, zz Rumi, zz Sogyal Rinpoche | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Why karma is not moralistic

My last post was on bringing awareness of karma into our life.  Karma explains what positive and negative actions are and helps us to live and act accordingly. Rigpa has a wonderful free daily email with inspiring quotes from Buddhist teachings (sign up here) and in the last couple of weeks two of them were on karma. The first one from November 21 explained karma:

“Karma means that whatever we do, with our bodies, speech, or minds, will have a corresponding result. Each action, even the smallest, is pregnant with its consequences. It is said by the masters that even a little poison can cause death, and even a tiny seed can become a huge tree. And as Buddha said: “Do not overlook negative actions merely because they are small; however small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain.

Similarly he said: ‘Do not overlook tiny good actions, thinking they are of no benefit even tiny drops of water in the end will fill a huge vessel.’

Karma does not decay like external things, or ever become inoperative. It cannot be destroyed ‘by time, fire, or water.’ Its power will never disappear, until it is ripened.”

In the Judeo-Christian culture I was brought up in negative actions are thought of in a very moralistic way. I find it very helpful that in Buddhism the concept of Karma is not moralistic. It is simply telling us that there is a natural law of cause and effect. Every action has an effect. In essence it means that positive actions bring positive results (happiness) and negative actions bring negative results (suffering).

I often still fall into the trap of thinking of negative actions in a moralistic way and as sins. This kind of thinking is quite ingrained in our culture and language.  For example we often speak of the act of doing something negative as “committing a negative action”. It seems to me that the word “committing” is already moralistically charged because it is usually used in the context of “committing” a sin or a crime. For me it immediately invokes the idea that I need to be punished or that my action made me a bad person.

The wheel of life

In Buddhism it is not seen like that. The Dalai Lama often says that when we do something negative the action is not good but it doesn’t mean that it makes us fundamentally a bad person. When we commit a negative action we do not commit a sin and are a doomed bad person but we have done something that creates harm and is not in accord with the natural law.

I don’t know if the word sin originally really had such a moralistic meaning. I recently read that idea of original sin could be compared to a fundamental ignorance that prevents us from being able to see how things are. Sin was then explained as “missing the mark”, of not being in or acting in accord with how things are. That is very similar to how karma is explained in Buddhism.

In Buddhism an action is called negative when we are not acting in accord with the natural “law”. “Law” is another charged word so maybe it would be better to say “being in accord with the natural order” or “being in harmony with how things are”. It means we are doing something that is not good for us and for others.
Even vows in Buddhism are not really moralistic.  For example, when we take vows not to lie, in Buddhism we say “I commit to training in refraining from lying”. There is an understanding we are not perfect and that we need to practice and train in avoiding these actions.

In my last post I focused on the underlying principle and how motivation determines whether an action is positive or negative. What make an action positive or negative is the motivation and intention behind it. A positive action is considered to be something that is done without attachment and aversion in the mind. The main message of the teachings on karma is therefore to always have a pure mind and good intention.

Here is another quote on karma from the December 3 Rigpa Glimpse of the Day email that also highlights this:

“Every single negative thing we have ever thought or done has ultimately arisen from our grasping at a false self, and our cherishing of that false self, making it the dearest and most important element in our lives. All those negative thoughts, emotions, desires, and actions that are the cause of our negative karma are engendered by self-grasping and self-cherishing. They are the dark, powerful magnet that attracts to us, life after life, every obstacle, every misfortune, every anguish, every disaster, and so they are the root cause of all the sufferings of samsara.”

The teachings on karma do not only only explain the fundamental principles of cause and effect but they also highlight ten action which are considered negative. Three of these ten are physical acts: taking life, taking what is not given, and sexual misconduct; four are verbal acts: lying, sowing discord, harsh words, and worthless chatter; and three are mental acts:  covetousness, wishing harm on others, and wrong views.

In Buddhism these ten actions are not commandments like in Christianity, but guidelines. The ten actions are considered to be negative but ultimately what determines whether they are negative depends on the intention behind them. That means that karma is not black and and white. It also means that it is not so easy to determine if an action is positive. Only someone who has fully awakened from ignorance and can see all the factors involved can truly see it.

Thus the teachings on karma are also telling us that we need to be very careful in judging the actions of others. Especially in the case of realized spiritual practitioners, even if on first sight their actions might look negative their motivation might be very pure and well intended.

Since motivation determines whether an action is good or bad, the physical and verbal acts can actually not be considered definitively negative. If the intention behind them is good they can be positive. There are examples in the scriptures of seemingly negative actions that were actually positive. In the “King of Samadhi: Commentaries on the Samadhi Raja Sutra and the Song of of Lodrö Thaye”, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche said:

“…the question arises: ‘Should any action that appears to be negative be avoided in all cases?’ The answer is no. There are some circumstances in which a negative action of body, when carried out intelligently, for the sake of others and without any selfishness whatsoever directly benefits other beings.

A story from a past life of the Buddha illustrates this. It is the story about a shipload of five hundred merchants on a ship traveling from India to the islands off the coast laden with riches. Among the travelers was a murderer named ‘Spear-wielding Criminal’ who intended to kill everyone aboard the ship to keep the riches. The bodhisattva “Prince Fortitude,” who was the ship captain, knew about this intention and thought, ‘If I kill him first, I can save him from the negative karma, from killing five hundred people.’ So the bodhisattva killed the criminal. Instead of creating negative karma from this act, he accumulated a vast amount of merit. So this story illustrates that, by using discriminating knowledge and pure motivation, a negative action can become virtuous. If our motivation is utterly free from disturbing emotions, the action can be carried out if it relieves the suffering of others or benefits a vast number of beings.”

The centre of the Wheel of Life, featuring a pig, snake and bird representing the three poisons ignorance, anger and desire

However the negative actions of the mind can never be positive. If your mind is full of confusion, malice and wanting then whatever you do will be negative, even if it might look good from the outside. This is also an important point. One’s actions might look very good from the outside but if the intention is selfish or self-serving or one’s mind is full of anger and malice then even the most noble looking actions are actually negative.

The heart of Buddhist ethics is very practical and not moralistic.  The ten negative actions are not declared as sins but they are given as guidelines that will help us avoid accumulating negative karma. The teachings explain that if we engage in certain actions we run the risk of harming others and creating negative karma. When the seeds that we have created will ripen then we will experience suffering. That’s why ultimately harming others is not good for ourselves. When we harm others we are ultimately harming ourselves.

I have heard these warnings to abstain from the negative actions described as light beacons on a shore that tell a seafarer to avoid dangerous currents and cliffs. If you know the shore very well you can  sometimes overstep these boundaries without harm. But because there is a great danger and likelihood that you will be doing something negative, it is advised to abstain from them.

Another way of looking at these negative actions is relating them to the general principle of motivation and intention that karma is based on. When we are self-centered and see our own well-being and happiness as more important than that of others, what do we do? We take what doesn’t belong to us. We starts fights with others. We attack them physically and might even kill them. We take advantage of others for our own pleasure. We lie to achieve our goals. When someone displeases us we respond with abusive language. We talk badly about others behind their backs and sow discord to further our own agendas. We say all sort of thoughtless negative things in idle gossip. We covet things that others have that we don’t. We harbor anger and malice towards others. We develop views, concepts and attitudes that are not reflecting how things are and just create confusion and suffering.

The ten negative actions seem to be simple a list of the things that we do when our heart and mind are not pure and we are afflicted by the three poisons of anger, attachment and ignorance. When we find ourselves doing something on the list then maybe a good first step would be look at our mind and heart. And check our intention and motivation. Because that is the root out of which these actions arise.

The Great Tibetan Saint and Yogi Milarepa

It is said in the teachings that there is one positive side to negative actions: They can be purified! Karma is that we are very powerful. In the same way that we can create negative karma we can create positive karma and purify past negative actions. Even the most harmful actions can be purified. For example the story of the life and liberation of Milarepa is a great example of this. How to do that in detail is another story, … maybe a topic I could pick up at some point in the future.

Posted in 07 Karma, Buddhism | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Living with awareness of karma

In my last post I mentioned that I wanted to write about how we can know that a spiritual teacher is an authentic. But since my reflections in the last few days have been on karma I decided to write about that instead. A few months ago I already did a short series of posts on that topic, You might find it helpful to read these, because they cover some of the basic explanation that I will not repeat here. Start with this post and then use the link on the top right of the post to go to the next two.

Karma fits very nicely into my recent series of reflections of what Buddhism is about. It is a key principle in the Buddhist teachings. Essentially, karma is about the principle of cause and effect; that everything in this world is interdependent. Every actions has an effect on us and the world around us and contributes to our and others future reality.

Karma is often misunderstood as predestination but actually the teachings on karma are telling us that through our actions we create our world. It can be difficult to understand that karma is not moralistic and not a punishment. But actually it is simply about cause and effect. It means that we are powerful. We create our reality with our actions. Whatever we do leaves very subtle  imprints in the ground of our mind and creates seeds that will ripen in the future. Thus, our past actions have created our present reality and right now we are creating our future with our present actions.

In my practice there is a beautiful one line essentialization and reminder of the message of karma:

“Unalterable are the laws of karma, cause and effect cannot be escaped.”

Light always finds a way...

"Light always finds a way" photo by flickr user Katarina 2353

Karma is telling us that we better pay attention to what we do, speak and think. It says that positive actions bring happiness and negative actions will bring us suffering.

The main reason why I have been reflecting on karma recently is because I want to bring it more into my day to day awareness. One of the things I am trying to understand better is what exactly positive and negative actions are.

There are ten actions that are said to be negative but the main factor that determines whether an action is positive or negative is the intention with which it is carried out. Today, instead of going into detail about the ten negative actions I want to reflect more on the underlying principles.

What makes an action negative? It is said that an action becomes negative if it is done with attachment and aversion. Attachment for example refers to a self-centered attitude of wanting. We then often act without regard or awareness of others for our own self-gratification, often at the expense of others. Aversion is usually triggered by negative feelings towards others and circumstances. Something bothers us and all we want to do is to remove this sore spot in our world without much regard for others.

The underlying attitude behind negative actions is a self-centered attitude with which comes an often unconscious disregard of the needs of others. The basis of this self-centeredness is the idea of an independently existing self. This idea gives rise to a mindset of “I” versus “other” or “me” against “the world”. This then leads to the idea that “I” am more important than others. We operate on the basis that what “I need” is more important than what others need. We don’t give a lot of thought to whether doing or getting what we want effects others.

It might seem that we need such an attitude to take ourselves in this world. But actually the teachings are not saying we shouldn’t take care of ourselves. The main point is the attitude we have when we take care of ourselves. Granted if we have more awareness and care for others our own needs will probably be less than they are now, but these choices will be made with wisdom, love, compassion and joy. Self-centeredness limits our mind and prevents us from seeing how things are. It also closes our heart and prevents us from feeling love and compassion. All this is the cause of suffering.

Being free of aversion also doesn’t mean we become a doormat. For example, if we engage in a conflict with hatred we create negative karma. But if the same action is done with the intention to defend ourselves or to stop injustice and done without malice and hatred in our heart then it is not negative.

The underlying attitude behind positive actions can be said to see ourselves as part of a bigger world and live with awareness of that connectedness and oneness with the world. It is an attitude of respect and care for the world and all beings within it. The key is the motivation behind our action, whether it is self-centered or is infused with a good heart and awareness of others and our environment.

One the burning questions often in my mind is: How can I bring this into my life? Reflecting on this made me realize that even the ordinary things we do all day can become positive actions if our being is infused with a deeper awareness that sees the need of others.

Even washing the dishes can be a positive action that will plant seeds for future happiness and well being. We can see the dishes need to be done and do them with joy, rather than frustration about the endless stream of housework. Or we do them because we see our wife is tired. Or we use them as an opportunity to practice, imagining that cleaning the plates we clean the obscurations of all beings. The possibilities are endless! We can infuse whatever we do with good heart and awareness of others and use it as an opportunity to purify our mind and heart and to develop love, compassion and and wisdom.

We are powerful. We can take charge of our minds and our lives and use our present life to create a positive future reality. How? By being mindful of what we do and aware of how our minds are. By avoiding actions that create causes for future suffering and engaging in actions that sowing positive seeds. If we are in fully harmony of our true being then what we do will be naturally virtuous. As long as we don’t live with a true understanding of reality, as long as we engage in them with the sense of a separate  “I”, “others”  and an “external outer world” these actions leave imprints in our subtle consciousness. When we have awakened to that realization it is said that all our actions will effortlessly and naturally benefit others.

Ultimately, when our being has fully transcended the realm of dualistic existence then we will cease to be bound by karma, but until that time it is important to pay attention to karma. The great master Padmasambhava said:

“Though my View is as spacious as the sky, my actions and respect for cause and effect are as fine as grains of flour”

Posted in 07 Karma, Buddhism | Tagged , | 1 Comment

How to Practice in a Nutshell

This has been quite a long series on the essence of Buddhist practice. I began this series with the intention of bring my understanding of what practice is about  into a simple point. As I reflected on the teachings I discovered that even though the essence of practice is simple, it is a very deep and rich topic with many different aspects to include and reflect upon. This topic ended up quite a bit longer than I initially envisioned. That’s life, isn’t it? Today I decided to make a final post; to try to bring it all together and also add a few more points on how to bring the practice into life. Reflecting on this topic has been tremendously helpful for my own understanding and practice. It helped me bring my understanding of what practice is about into a nutshell.

I am sure I got more out of these reflections than anyone who will read them. Why? Because it is really the process of reflecting that clarifies one’s understanding. If you are interested in this topic I would suggest you study it yourself. Read or listen to teachings, make notes from them, reflect on them and draw out the key points for yourself. Sogyal Rinpoche always says that we need to cream our understanding into simple essential points. Practice then means taking to heart and to experience these points personally and directly in one single taste.

Yesterday, as a conclusion to my reflections, I decided to asked myself: “What are the essential point of practice? How can I bring them into my practice?” Here are the points that came to my mind:

Buddha

After taking a moment to settle onto my seat and bringing my awareness to my body and to the present moment, I always begin my practice with reminding myself of what spiritual practice is about and why I am practicing. My goal is to bring a deeper understanding of myself and the world into my life. One point that often stands out for me is that what we are is much bigger than our physical body and limited sense of identity.

Then I try to expand my motivation to go beyond self-centeredness. I begin by reflecting how coming back to our true nature, what we truly are is the key to happiness, peace, contentment, fulfillment. That this is the heart of the message of all spiritual teachings. And that it is the best solution to all our problems and the way to become free of suffering. The great Zen master Suzuki Roshi once said that for human beings there is really no other practice than this.

Since we all want happiness, whether we realize that or not, we really have no choice but to strive for awakening to our true nature! Based on these thoughts I then try to ennoble my spiritual journey by generating the motivation to practice not just for myself but to develop the strength, capacity and wisdom to help everyone reach this state of awakening and freedom of suffering. This is the ultimate goal and purpose of our life. Of course, I also remind myself that I will only be able to help after I have sorted out my own problems. And that this needs to be my first focus.

The actual practice is embodying our true nature. This is not something we need to create. We already have it perfectly within us. And we also the wisdom to recognize it is already perfectly within us. Ultimately practice is to live in our true being and be in this natural state of mind. It is simple to infuse our being with a deeper awareness and consciousness that includes our present life – our body, our mind and the world around us – and our transcendent nature. It includes both our present life with all its beauty and problems and our deeper nature. We embrace our ordinary sense of self with the open, limitless, timeless, ungraspable,  self-knowing wakefulness. We bring a direct experience of what we are into our being. Direct experience means beyond words, with an inconceivable sense of wonder of the mystery of life and death.

But right now we are often not able to do this for more than short moments. That’s why we need to train in using skillful methods that help us reconnect with the experience of our deeper transcendent nature. The purpose of practice is to purify our mind and heart and remove whatever obscures our nature and our inherent capacity to recognize it. There are many methods and ways to work with this. Meditation is the most direct approach.  The essence of meditation is to rest in natural state of mind. The key point is not grasping at our perceptions and simply let our thoughts and emotions come and go. This is the best and most direct way to purify our mind.

Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit) or Chenrezig (Tibetan) - The Buddha of Compassion

When we are connected with our natural being a sense of love and compassion arises naturally and effortlessly. It doesn’t always have to be an emotional feeling. On a fundamental level it is a basic sense of caring for and connectedness with any living being. Love is simply the wish for others to be happy and compassion is the wish for them to be free of suffering.

There are six wonderful ways we can practice embodying our true nature in our life. They are called the six paramitas.

Generosity is about giving from our heart when we are moved and inspired to give, without expectation, just out of the motivation to help and for the joy of the act.

Discipline is to live with a deep awareness of what is wholesome and virtuous. It is about carefully paying attention to whatever arises in our mind during the day and to avoid anything that could harm others.

Patience is not letting ourselves be perturbed by anything. We endure hardship without malice towards those who cause it. We make a conscious choice to stay with our true nature wisdom, love and compassion. We decide not to give in to anger and self-centered wanting realizing that it would take us away from our true being.

Enthusiastic diligence is to find joy in actions that are positive or wholesome and engage them with enthusiasm.

Meditation is to practice abiding in our true being. Its practice is simply not being distracted from it. To bring ourselves back whenever we get lost in thoughts and emotions and loose the awareness of what we truly are.

The goal of these five is to develop perfect wisdom. This is the sixth and last paramita. It is said the fist five are like rivers that flow into the ocean of the sixth, into wisdom. The underlying intention of all we do needs to be striving to develop wisdom. Wisdom is the ability see things how they are, both in how they are their essence and nature is as well as fully understanding all the relative aspects of phenomena.

It is said for these six action to be true paramitas, or transcendent actions, they need to be performed with a true understanding of the nature of reality. We need to understadn that the person who is acting, the actions themselves and the people and objects they are directed to are devoid of separate individual existence. All these phenomena – ourselves, others and the world around us – are just facets of the universe. They arise and are perfectly contained within the pure and primordial awareness that is its nature.

If we practice the paramitas this way it is said that they will lead us towards awakening our inherent wisdom and capacities to the fullest, which is all that is meant by enlightenment.

At the end of my practice sessions, and also at the end of the day before I go to sleep, I take a moment dedicate the merit of my practice towards the enlightenment of all beings. An image that sometimes comes to my mind is of getting paid at the end of a hard day’s work and then giving what you earned to others who are in need. Dedication could also be compared with putting the money towards the communal good of the universe, because one’s own need deserve to be taken care of equally as those of others.

I also remind myself to not hold onto my merit as “something” or “mine” and to remember that I didn’t create anything graspable; that ultimately there is no giver giving and no one who is given to.

For my next post I want to reflect about what an authentic spiritual teacher is. We need teachers and it is very important to find teachers that we can have confidence in as being authentic and trustworthy.

Posted in 10 Bodhichitta, Buddhism | Tagged , | 1 Comment

How to Meditate: Eight Simple Steps

This week I wrote a guest post for my wife’s blog Always Well Within. It is called How to meditate: Eight Simple Steps. The post is a based on a handout that I put together for our local meditation group.

Instead of writing another post, I decided to do some “blog cleaning” this weekend. Actually not really cleaning, more organizing and explaining what is in the archives.  It is  almost a year now that I started this blog and a lot of posts have accumulated. There are many different categories and key words. I have been meaning to add a “start here” page to my site for a while to point out the main threads and topics. So voila, here it is: “Start Here” !

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Good at the End: Dedication

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.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

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.

Sogyal Rinpoche with his master Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö

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.

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Good in the Middle: Understanding the main point of practice

In the last two post I have been reflecting on what essential elements my practice needs to have in order to be authentic and to bring lasting benefit and transformation. The three elements that are considered to be indispensable are called the “Three Noble Principles”: to begin with the right motivation, understand and apply the main point of practice in the middle and seal with dedicating the merit at the end. It is said that to accomplish complete enlightenment more than this is not necessary, but less than this is incomplete!

Motivation is about reminding ourselves why we practice: Spiritual practice is about the mind and heart, about wisdom and compassion. Wisdom is about getting to know and understanding our mind. Ultimately it is about reconnecting with our own inner wisdom, our innate ability to understand ourselves and the world. And when we are able to connect with our pure true being, then love and compassion will shine out effortlessly, which will naturally move us to live a life of non-harming and helping others.

How can we do that? By developing our mind and heart! If we keep making our mind and heart bigger, we will slowly find and increase our inner wisdom and love.

However understanding this intellectually is not enough, we need to experience this in our practice and to learn to embody and live it. The word spiritual refers to something that is relating to the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. Mind and heart are not something we can see or touch with our hands. They are not something we can fully understand intellectually. Words, ideas and concepts fail to fully describe them. But fortunately our mind and heart have the capacity to experience and understand their deeper nature directly.

When I establish my motivation I try to come back to an experiential and personal understanding of my deeper nature. It may be just a glimpse, but it is like a spark that can ignite my practice.  Then comes the main part “Good in the Middle”: the practice itself, which is about nurturing, deepening and embodying this glimpse my transcendent nature as much as possible.

There are many different practices: meditation, contemplation, compassion, prayer. Whatever practice we might be doing, what is most important is to understand the crucial point of practice which is to experience our true being. Ultimately it is to come back and stay in the glimpse of our deeper nature, that we reminded ourselves of and tried to experience when we established our motivation.

Buddha

Sogyal Rinoche wrote in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that “Good in the Middle is the frame of mind with which we enter into the heart of the practice, one inspired by the realization of the nature of mind, from which arises an attitude of non-grasping, free of any conceptual reference whatsoever, and an awareness that all things are inherently “empty,” illusory, and dream-like.”

The goal of our practice is a way of being where we fully understand the nature of existence and a result or quality of this realization is freedom of grasping. It is said that all Buddhist teachings agree that the goal of practice to become free of clinging. However, right now we haven’t recognized our true nature and therefore it is difficult to be completely free of holding onto things.

Fortunately, the attitude of non-grasping is not just something that arises as a result of realization but also something we can practice now. My teachers say that even if we can’t fully actualize this right now, we can still train in this attitude of non-grasping by trying to be free from clinging as much as possible. Whenever we notice we get entangled we let go and come back to the bare awareness of the present. So it goes both ways. When we understand the nature of reality it gives rise to freedom of grasping. When we train in not grasping, we come closer to seeing reality as it is.

Practice is about discovering our innate wisdom and learning to live and act motivated by the love and compassion that naturally arise from this space of wisdom. That’s why in life the main point is not to harm, and to help others as much as possible.
Buddha encapsulate the essence of his teaching very beautifully:

“Commit not a single unwholesome action,
Cultivate a wealth of virtue,
To tame this mind of ours,
This is the teaching of all the buddhas.”

Two down, one to go! In my next post I will write about Good at the End: Dedication.

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Good in the Beginning: Motivation

Over the last few years I have realized more and more how stressed and wound up I am. That was a really good insight. It helped me understand, why my mind is wild and agitated and that it is expected if my energy all stirred and wound up. My problem is that even though I like the Buddhist teachings and the idea of actualizing them very much, I love being busy, doing things. I get a lot of satisfaction from getting things done, much more than from enjoying the process of doing. Practice is really a process of getting to know your mind, just enjoying the process of practice regardless of the content of the experience without labeling one kind of state of mind as desirable and another as undesirable. This requires patience and learning to just paying attention and being mindful of whatever is happening. It is also about learning to let go of doing things with the idea of achieving something. All these are qualities I need to develop more.

I also realized I need to begin by acknowledging where I am at and start working with where I am right now. When body and mind are stressed and wound up, it is important to have a simple practice. I have found out the hard way that when I try to  work with detailed instructions, visualizations or mantras, it doesn’t work very well. That’s why I am so enthusiastic about clarifying for myself what the main point of practice is and keep asking questions like: What is the most simple way to practice Buddhism? What is the minimum I need to have a genuine practice? Okay, I admit it. I am also a very lazy person and like to have the most simple practice possible! Maybe all the above reasons are just a good excuse!

I think the answer to the question “What is the most simple way to practice Buddhism?” is given in “the three noble principles” that I wrote about in my last post. Begin with the right motivation, understand how to practice and seal with dedicating the merit. I think there is a lot to reflect and understand about each of these points.

What is the right motivation?

Sogyal Rinpoche by Mathilde Ferry

Sogyal Rinpoche wrote in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that “Good in the Beginning springs from the awareness that we and all sentient beings fundamentally have the buddha nature as our innermost essence, and that to realize it is to be free of ignorance and to put an end, finally, to suffering.”

It seems to me that the heart of all spiritual traditions is to understand a deeper truth about ourselves and our life, to help us cope with the challenges, obstacles of life and to protect us from suffering. The uniqueness in Buddhism is that the best solution to our problems is said to be a true and complete understanding of reality.

Our fundamental nature is perfect, pure and unstained by our faults and problems. So if we can realize our Buddha nature and embody this truth then we will find lasting freedom, happiness and will have brought suffering to an end once and for all. What we are is so much bigger than how we presently think of ourselves and if we can see ourselves in this light then we will know how to live and die well. We will know how to live well because we will be able to see all our problems with a bigger perspective and we will know how to die well because we will have confidence that our essence is indestructible and will continue.

Freedom comes from truly understanding ourselves and the world and from this understanding comes unceasing love and compassion from which effortlessly and naturally manifests compassionate action. That’s why it is said that the Buddhist teachings are about wisdom and compassion.  For example the Dalai Lama has said that “the essence of Buddhism is deep and transforming compassion, coupled with wisdom, penetrating insight into the nature of reality.

So for me the first step of motivation involves being clear about what the teachings are about, which is realizing our Buddha nature. The second step is about seeing that we are all in the same boat with this and giving rise to the wish to practice not just for ourselves but to help all beings to reach this perfect state of enlightenment.

The motivation that is recommended is to look beyond our own self-centered interest and to resolve that once we attain enlightenment we will not tire until all other beings awaken to their true nature. It may seem impossible, but is there anything more noble we could work towards?

In my next post I want to reflect more on Good in the Middle, the crucial points we need to have in our practice so that it brings us closer to enlightenment.

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The Essence of Buddhist practice

The Buddhist teachings and practice are very rich and I often do not have time to practice as much as is ideally recommended. I have been introduced to many practices and often get overwhelmed when I try to do them all. I end up rushing through my practice and at the end of day I don’t feel fully satisfied. That’s why I have been thinking a lot recently about the essential elements that are necessary to have a complete practice that will bring me closer to the ultimate goal of awaking to my true nature.

When I reflected on this I realized that Sogyal Rinpoche and my other teachers have been explaining exactly this point again and again. I just keep forgetting. Maybe not completely forgetting the advice, but forgetting that this is the heart of practice and applying it.

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying there is a section entitled “The Heart of Meditation” which gives a simple framework that helps us to establish a good motivation, practice with an understanding of the main point of practice, and at the end close the practice in a way that ensures that our efforts are not lost afterward. It is said that to attain complete enlightenment more than this is not necessary but less than this is incomplete. It recently dawned on me that I better try to understand these point better.

In the section “The Heart of Meditation” Sogyal Rinpoche explains that:

“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.”

Good in the Beginning springs from the awareness that we and all sentient beings fundamentally have the buddha nature as our innermost essence, and that to realize it is to be free of ignorance and to put an end, finally, to suffering. So each time we begin our practice of meditation, we are moved by this, and inspire ourselves with the motivation to dedicate our practice, and our life, to the enlightenment of all beings …

Good in the Middle is the frame of mind with which we enter into the heart of the practice, one inspired by the realization of the nature of mind, from which arises an attitude of non-grasping, free of any conceptual reference whatsoever, and an awareness that all things are inherently “empty,” illusory, and dream-like.

Good at the End is the way in which we bring our meditation to a close by dedicating all its merit, and praying with real fervor: “May whatever merit that comes from this practice go toward the enlightenment of all beings; may it become a drop in the ocean of the activity of all the buddhas in their tireless work for the liberation of all beings.” …

Longchenpa, also known as Longchen Rabjam, ‘Infinite, Vast Expanse of Space’, or Drimé Özer (1308-1364), who was one of the most brilliant teachers of the Nyingma lineage.

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.”

Isn’t it really good news that to attain complete enlightenment more than these three noble principles is not necessary? However, I believe there is a catch.  I don’t think it is as easy as just reciting these three points to ourselves whenever we practice. That alone is of course a good start, but will not be enough. In a way, it would be too good to be true. These points are very deep and profound and I believe we need to understand them fully and learn to actualize them in our practice to obtain the desired benefit.  We need to bring them into our being not just on an intellectual level but on a deep emotional level.

I think it is still fantastic news that even if we are busy and cannot practice a lot these three noble principles will ensure that our practice will be genuine and bear fruit. Of course, if we are not able to practice a lot it will take longer, but we will still eventually get there. That is the most important, isn’t it?

I have decided that I wanted to focus on understanding and applying the three noble principles more in my practice. I should have done this a long time ago. But better late than never!

To be continued …

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