I am presently on my way back home from a six week retreat with my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche at Lerab Ling, France. Right now I am visiting family in Munich and in a few days I will return back home to Hawaii. As you may have noticed it has been a little challenging to keep up the continuity of my blog postings. I am very happy that I found some space today to write a new post. I concluded my last post by saying that I wanted to write next about what the essence of Buddhist practice is. (Over the last few months I have been working on clarifying and simplifying my practice. My last two posts were on what is the essence of Buddhism is and what enlightenment is about.)
With regards to what the essence of Buddhist practice is, two points stand out for me. First we need to understand what the goal of practice is. Second we need to know how to practice. This post is about the first, on how we can arrive at a good understanding of what the teachings are about. I already wrote about how this is explained, but just hearing or reading the explanation is not enough. Why? The teachings are actually not aiming to provide intellectual understanding but a personal experience of what is true.
How can we arrive at a personal experience of the teachings? We need to use the three wisdom tools of listening, reflection and application. As we apply these three wisdom tools things will slowly become clearer through reflection and then when we bring that understanding to our practice it will become a personal experience. As a result we slowly arrive at a deeper inner conviction of the truth of the teachings. Isn’t it interesting that the Tibetan the word of practice means to take to heart?
The first step of is to reflect. But how do we do that? In the Buddhist tradition there are some wonderful and special teachings on how to reflect and I thought I could share how reflection helps me in my practice.
When I sit down to practice in the morning right after I wake up, my mind is usually a little dull and likes to ponder questions like: What is Buddhism about? What is Buddha nature? What is the main point of practice? Even though the questions stay the same the answers that come to my mind are always a little different. Depending on how my mind and my mood is I need a different explanation. There are no precooked answers, because these questions are explained in the teachings in many different ways. Why? Buddhism is about realizing how reality is. This truth is beyond words, beyond thought and beyond description. So the teachings are like a finger pointing towards the moon. The point is to see the moon. There is only one moon, but there are many ways to point towards the moon. That’s why there are so many different ways to explain the same point.
What I find really wonderful is that even as a beginner we can already get little glimpses of the moon. By glimpses of the moon I mean having moments of inspiration, deep inner conviction and clarity. When this happens I stop reflecting and just rest. The teachings advise that when the reflection has helped our minds to settle, when we arrive at an experience of inspiration or clarity, or if we get tired of reflecting, then we just rest in an open and spacious state of mind. My teachers have explained that this feeling of spaciousness is a little experience of shunyatha, emptiness.
One of my teachers, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, once remarked he finds that for Westerns it is often very difficult to meditate straight away. Our minds are very agitated because our posture is not good, our breathing is not natural and relaxed, our muscles are tight and tense. All these factors affect the flow of our subtle energy. The mind is compared to a rider which rides on the horse. Our mind rides on the inner air (prana) that flows through a system of subtle channels in our body. Thus the inner air (prana) is compared to a horse and the road on which this horse travels on are the subtle channels in our body. When our energy is all blocked and disturbed, our minds become wild and it becomes very difficult to meditate.
When Tibetan teachers first began to teach Westerners Shamatha meditation, – the first level of meditation, which tries to bring a state of calm abiding or peacefully remaining – they were initially quite concerned whether Westerners would be able to accomplish this practice. Apparently their students finally managed it, but it took a long time because their minds were initially so wild and unsettled. I think that is why Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche advises his students to begin with contemplation. Once our heart opens, for example when we feel inspired, or experience compassion or devotion, then these obstructions in the flow of our inner energy dissolve and then we can practice much more easily.
In the Buddhist teaching reflection is explained as a two stage process. In one of the Rigpa courses it is explained like this: “The Tibetan terms for these two stages are “ché gom” and “jok gom.” “Ché” roughly means “analytical” or “investigative,” and “gom” means “meditation. “Jok” roughly means “resting,” but it is much more than just ordinary resting. You could think of these two phases of ché gom and jok gom as something like “exploring” and “assimilating.”
The way to practice it is to go forth and back between the two. You contemplate until you arrive at a point of clarity, inspiration, or personal experience of what you are reflecting on, or until you feel tired of reflecting and then you simply rest in an open spacious state of mind until your thoughts naturally come back. Then you continue reflecting and so on.
I have a very busy mind, my body tends to be tense and my breathing shallow and uneven, so this approach works really well for me. Once reflection has brought some inspiration, peace or clarity then it has served its purpose and it is time to drop it, because the main point of practice is to rest in an open and spacious state of mind.
Reflecting this way helps us to come to a personal understanding of the teaching. My next post will be about the essence of how to practice.