Daily Life and Practice of Western Buddhists
Riga, Latvia, July 2008
I've been asked to speak about this topic: daily life and practice of Buddhism in the West. I think the first question that comes up is, is there anything special about the practice of Buddhism in the West that is different from the practice of Buddhism anywhere, at any time in history? Is there anything special about us? And, why would we be interested to know if there's something special about us, in the West, now? It could be...the best of reasons...that we face various difficulties and we would like to know are there some extra difficulties that we face that we need to work on and overcome? Or, for a much less noble reason, it could be because we are looking for an excuse to not have to practice as hard or as intensively as other people in other parts of the world at other times. In other words, we're looking for a bargain. To get enlightenment cheap. So, let's put that type of motivation aside, and look more seriously at, are there any specific difficulties that we face?
Now, if we look at the most basic things which are involved in the Buddhist path, and what we have to work with, I think we would have to say that there's nothing special about us at all. I don't think we could say that now, in the West, in this present time, we have more anger, or more greed, or more selfishness, than people have had elsewhere in the world, or people have had in the past. People have been working with the same disturbing emotions, all over this universe, throughout time. So that is nothing special about now, is there? And, the number of sentient beings has not increased. So, throughout time and everywhere, we've all been faced...everybody has been faced with the incredible challenge of wanting to reach enlightenment to benefit so many people. So many beings I should say. So that's the same.
So, we've spoken...if we think in terms of the graded path...of lam-rim, the intermediate scope, aiming for liberation from disturbing emotions. Same, now, as it's been in the past, or elsewhere. Working for enlightenment to help everybody. Same. Same number of beings as there always have been. And, if we speak about the initial scope...pardon me for not speaking in the proper order, but the initial scope is to improve future lives, guarantee that we continue to have a precious human rebirth. Well, that hasn't changed at all has it? We all have beginningless mental continuums. Which means that we have been born in other parts of the world, in other parts of the universe, in all previous times, and we've always faced future rebirths, and needing to try to insure that we have a precious human one. So that's the same. So, what's different? Is there anything different?
Well, some people might say that our circumstances are different. We have, for instance, very stressful lives, we're very busy. Well, has a struggling farmer in the times of the Middle Ages, who has had to work in the fields, sixteen hours or more a day, have they been less busy than we are, working in an office? Their activity may have been different, but they certainly were as busy. And, cave people. Didn't they have a lot of stress and worry, about wild animals, and these sort of things. A lot of fears. Fears of lightning or thunder – things that they didn't understand? People have always lived with fear and stress, haven't they?
How about living in times when there was the bubonic plague. We think that we have stress and fear now. How about if we lived then? So, I don't think that we could say that what is so special about us is that our lives are so busy and stressful. It might be a different flavor of busy, a different flavor of stressful, in terms of the activities that we are involved with. But stress, worry, no time? That's been going on all the time, everywhere.
Well, we could also say that our society, our culture, doesn't share any, or many, of the fundamental assumptions that you have in Buddhism. So it's really very alien to us. But, if we look at the example of Buddhism coming to China, the Chinese didn't believe in rebirth. Chinese have always thought in terms of ancestors. And when you die, there's some sort of spirit, or a soul, of ancestors that lives on. And you have to make offerings to the ancestors. That's quite different from rebirth, isn't it? If you think of rebirth, ancestors are no longer around...the spirits of ancestors...are they? And so, it took quite a while for the Chinese to understand a lot of these very fundamental, basic Buddhist concepts. So when we face the similar challenge, that's nothing new. That's nothing special.
So, I think that realizing that, we're not "special," it can be very helpful. If you think of teenagers and not even necessarily teenagers, but people who have a certain type of problem. Let's say, their parents were alcoholic or whatever. They often think, "I'm the only one who has this problem." And then the problem becomes really very, very large to them. But, if they learn that there are many, many others, who face the same type of problem, then they are not alone; they don't feel alone. Their problem fits into a larger context. They get a very different perspective on it. And optimally, they would develop compassion for everybody else with a similar problem. Rather than thinking of it as simply "my" problem, now they start thinking of it as “our” problem. When something becomes “our” problem, rather than "my" problem, it's very different emotionally, and psychologically. So, I think it's the same, in terms of daily practice of Buddhism. It really is everybody's problem. How do we apply Buddhism to life? It's not "my" special problem, "me" individually, or "me" culturally individually living in the West, now, in our present age. It's just that the conditions are different – from one point of view. The specifics are different, I should say.
Now, there are many different levels of practice of Buddhism and how we would go about applying it into our daily life. There is a very, very superficial level which doesn't really do very much to change us internally. And, then there is a deeper level, in which we are actually working on ourselves, working on our personalities, working toward the goals of liberation and enlightenment. Now, in the beginning, many people are attracted to this superficial level and so they deal with externals. By externals I mean you have to have a red blessing string around your neck, or around your wrist, or both, and wear a mala...a rosary of beads...around the other wrist and, maybe when we are walking around or sitting, then you thumb the rosary and mumble something. And we have to have a good supply of incense and candles, and all the proper meditation cushions, and Tibetan paintings and pictures, and, if we really go far in this direction, we might even start to wear some sort of Tibetan clothing.
I remember when I first went to India, in 1969, when I started living there. That was the height of the hippie era and there were very few Westerners who were there at that time. But many of them dressed fully in Tibetan exotic robes and costumes, and things like that. And I was rather judgmental about the whole thing and thought that it was offensive to the Tibetans; that these Westerners were just mimicking them and copying them. At that time, I was living with a Tibetan monk. So I asked him, “What do Tibetans think of these Westerners, who go around dressed in Tibetan clothes?” And he said, "We think that they like Tibetan clothes." So, no judgment there, whatsoever. It was very, very helpful.
But, whether we are judgmental about it or not, just changing our clothing, wearing a rosary around our wrist, having many blessing cords, red strings around our neck, doesn't really change us very much, does it? Internally? So, I think that, particularly in the West, it's not such a great idea to go around with all of this because it brings about people making fun of us. If a woman is dressed in a very beautiful, elegant dress for an evening event and they have some dirty red strings around their neck, that doesn't quite look proper, does it? So, I always advise people that if they would like to keep these red blessing cords, keep it in their wallet, keep it in their pocket, keep it in their pocketbook, whatever. You don't have to actually display it. Displaying it doesn't bring more “blessings,” does it? And, if you want to say mantras, the same thing; you don’t have to bring out your rosary and make a whole big show out of it. You can say it silently in your mind, if you are in a crowd, or on a bus, or whatever. So, this is what I mean by a slightly changed circumstance that we have. If we are in a society in which such type of behavior, or such type of strings, would look pretty weird, then there's no need to have them – externally. And, if our practicing Buddhism is simply wearing these strings, then obviously that's not a very deep practice of Buddhism, and not very helpful.
Actually, if you look at the way that Tibetans deal with these strings, they only wear them for a short period of time. They don’t just wear them until they really get them dirty and horrible. They wear them for a very short period of time and then retire them; put them on their altar or something like that. So, I think the advice that we have in the seven points of attitude training, or mind training, lojong, is very helpful here. Which is, “Transform internally, but leave your external form consistent with what is ordinarily around.” So, it's best to keep our practice private. This is particularly true if we are lay practitioners living in a non-Buddhist society.
Now, if we’re monks or nuns, that's something different. That becomes a big issue. How do we practice as Westerners, living in Western society, as monks and nuns. Do we wear our robes to work? Well, that's not an easy one. Particularly because it was never intended that Buddhist monks and nuns go and work in the ordinary work force. The whole point of becoming a monk or nun was to live in a monastery with other monks and nuns. And, if you did a retreat, you went off to...from your monastery...to a cave, or whatever and then came back to your monastery. So, it was always in connection with a whole community of others, who were likewise dressed and involved in the same type of activity. So this becomes a major problem. How do we become monks and nuns as Westerners? And how do we practice, if we don’t have Western monasteries – or we have very few Western monasteries?
Well, we look at historical examples. The Mongols adopted Tibetan Buddhism and before monasteries were well established and supported in Mongolia, you want to become a monk or a nun and seriously practice, you went to Tibet and studied there in the monastery. So, as Westerners we're no different; there's nothing special. The Mongols didn't know Tibetan. It was a completely alien language. They had to learn it. And so do we. It wasn't easy for them to go to Tibet – and they had to walk! We at least don't have to walk to India or Nepal. And they faced difficulties; we would also need to face difficulties. We are not going to get it cheap. And, it's important to try to establish monasteries and nunneries in the West.
Then we could say, for instance, “Well, but we don't have the custom of begging.” If we went around barefoot in our city with a begging bowl and...when you beg as a monk or a nun, you're not even supposed to ask for anything; you just walk by and people are supposed to know to give you food and so on...and we are likely to go very hungry. The Tibetans didn't go around with their begging bowls. Distances were very far in Tibet to go into town. But the society developed in such a way that people brought food to the monasteries. So very nice. And the government supported the monasteries. So they were given land and they got...there were various people who worked on the land and gave a certain percentage to the monasteries. So, the system worked. But that took quite a while to evolve. But the Chinese had no tradition of begging and the monks and nuns in China did not beg. They slightly modified the system, so that the monks and nuns actually worked in the monastery. And they had fields and they did their own agriculture. So, in the West we probably will have to do something similar to that in the monasteries and nunneries, in order to practice Buddhism and support themselves, they probably will have to be involved with some sort of work.
If we look in India, things have developed a little bit in that direction. In the monasteries...in the south of India...they were given land by the government of India. In the beginning, the monks farmed the land. Everybody had to farm the land. And if they were able to get support...either from their family or from foreign patrons or whatever...then they would hire local Indians to work in the fields for them. So, the point of this is that if we’re going to be a monk or a nun, then I think it's important to try to work within the boundaries of being a monk or a nun. Somehow we are going to have to be self-supporting and you continue to wear the robes. The robes are very significant.
I remember Geshe Wangyal. He was Kalmyk Mongol, the first teacher that I met. He lived in America and he was not very keen on having his Western students become monks or nuns. But, if you did become a monk or a nun, what he would have you do is sit in your robes right next to the check-out counter in the supermarket with your begging bowl. He said, “If you're going to be a monk or a nun here's what you have to do. You're not going to get off cheap...” in terms of ignoring most of the traditions.
But I think that what this discussion leads to is the fact that practicing Buddhism in the West requires getting teachings. And getting teachings in the West requires money. This, I think, is one of the very difficult points and one of the points that is fairly unique in Buddhist history. Usually, you didn’t have to pay to get teachings. You made offerings, but it wasn’t required that you pay at the door in order to get in.
So, what does Buddhist practice require? What it requires...we’re not talking about money, not that it requires money...if we’re talking about real Buddhist practice, real Buddhist practice requires working on ourselves. Transforming ourselves. The practice of transforming ourselves is not something which is done through rituals. We could learn how to do a ritual and recite mumbo-jumbo in some foreign language that we don’t understand at all. And learn when we say this syllable, you ring a bell, and you say that syllable, you play a drum, and in the end, so what? It doesn’t transform us at all. We still get angry. We still can’t get along with our parents, and so on. So, His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that practicing these rituals when we have no understanding of what we are doing really is not going to get us very far. That really is not so helpful.
The practice of Buddhism is...it says very clearly both in Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, all the great Indian masters said...it all comes down to tame your mind. And tame your mind means, first of all, to learn the teachings. Learn the methods of how to deal with disturbing emotions and problematic situations. And to analyze various situations that we’re in. Try to remain mindful, which means to remember the teachings and apply them in different situations, so that it can help us to overcome at least the ordinary problems that we have in life – like anger, like worry, like nervousness, like not getting along with our parents – this type of things. Dealing with frustration, dealing with sickness, dealing with old age, problems in relationships, problems with your children. All these things. This is the field, in which we work with Buddhism.
So, we need to transform ourselves. We need to work on ourselves; improve our personalities. To do that requires a tremendous amount of work. That's not very easy to do. We have to develop patience. We have to develop perseverance, concentration, all of these things. But our tendency in the West is to want things easy, to want things quickly, and to want them cheap. We want all the teachings instantly. We want to gain all the wonderful things that we read about, that a Buddha has attained and so on, with the least amount of work as possible.
The fact that teachings cost something at least causes us to think, on many levels, of why does it cost something? Well, Dharma centers need to pay rent. Teachers need to buy food and health insurance, and pay their rent, etc.. So some money is needed if you don't have people who just willingly give offerings, like it was done in Tibet, in traditional Buddhist societies. So, if we want teachers, if we want facilities, somehow they need to be supported. Either voluntarily or you have to pay an admission. But that is just one level of reason. That's on a practical level. I think there's a deeper level here. And the deeper level is that if you want to receive something which is precious, namely the teachings, you are going to have to put a great deal of effort and work into getting it; otherwise you don't really appreciate it.
So, if we look at history, then, in order to invite various teachers to Tibet, not only did the Tibetans need to walk to India to invite them, but they also gathered all sorts of resources, not just to pay for the journey, but as offerings and so on. So, they put a tremendous amount of effort into getting the teachings. And a lot of people then needed to make great sacrifices in order to get the teachings. Look at what Marpa made Milarepa go through in order to get the teachings. So, in a sense, if we really want the teachings, then we need to make some effort – to get the money together, for example. Or, to travel to India. Or, to travel to a place where the teachings are available, if there not available where we live.
Now it is possible. I mean, you people here in Latvia lived under the Soviet Union. You couldn't travel very far or go anywhere, or move if you wanted to move to a different location where teachings were available. Now teachings are available. You can move much more easily. Especially now as a member of the EU. So you need to take advantage of that and not just say, "Well, there's nothing available where I live or very little available where I live." I don't mean to sound harsh but, if we really, really are serious about transforming ourselves, working on ourselves with the Dharma, and so on, this requires a tremendous commitment. It has to have top priority in our lives. And we have to have the courage and the bravery and the energy to make whatever moves, or do whatever is necessary, to get the optimum circumstances for study and practice.
And if we are not as serious as that, then fine. But acknowledge that. “I would like to learn a little about Buddhism, maybe it can help me a little bit in my life, but I am not willing to relocate if the circumstances aren't fine where I am. And it doesn't have top priority in my life: there are other things that are more important.” If that's our situation – fine. No problem. But be honest about it. That's perfectly fine. But don’t expect to get the type of results that we might get if we put full time and full effort into it. You have to be realistic. Put in a little bit of time, you get a little bit of result. You put in a lot of time, you get a larger result – maybe. Obviously we each have different obstacles, but that's a generalization.
So, I think in the West, in the present days, what is a bit different is that most people seem to prefer to practice as laypeople, not as monks or nuns. This is very different from traditional Buddhism. Because of that, rather than having so many monasteries and nunneries for monks and nuns, we have Dharma centers. There was no such thing as Dharma centers before Buddhism started to develop in the West.
So, then the question comes: What do we expect to achieve from going to a Dharma center? “I go once a week after work. I’m really tired and half the time I sleep if there's a talk. Maybe I just go and sing a song in Tibetan language. I don’t really know what's going on, but it's relaxing, and I ring a bell, and I go home.” So, what result can we expect from that? Not so much and, what's really sad, I find, is that the Dharma center's not even really a social club, in a sense. Like going to church. When you go to...whether it's speaking about Christianity or Judaism or Islam...there's a sense of a congregation; that these are the members of your church, or synagogue, or mosque, or whatever, and there's a sense of community. We’re not talking here about a sectarian sense, but on a deeper sense of social interaction. So, what is noticeable in these other non-Buddhist religious communities is that if someone is sick in the community, other people in the community help. They might bring food; they ask if somebody has not been coming for a week or two; they call up; they check up on what's going on, etc.. This seems to be missing in most of our Dharma centers. The people come, they sit in class, or they do a meditation, or they do a puja together, and, that's it. Maybe they go out for a beer afterwards, which is a little bit odd from a Dharma center. But in any case, I hear so many complaints from people who say, “What is Buddhism all about? I’ve been sick and nobody called. I was in the hospital, nobody came to visit, nobody cared.”
If our daily practice as a Buddhist in the West just means that we go by ourself to a Dharma center, do our little puja, or listen to a talk, or whatever it is that we do, and we go home and maybe we do a little bit of meditation each day, but we don’t care about even the other people who are part of our Dharma center, what is this? We sit there and we say, “I’m doing this for all sentient beings; may all sentient beings be happy – but someone in our Dharma center is in the hospital and I don’t have time to go visit, and, what do I care?” This is not proper. I mean, if our daily practice of Buddhism in the West is like that, something's wrong. So, I think often we become a little bit too focused...too narrow, shall I say...in our focus on doing pujas, doing meditation by ourselves, or in a group, but not really, socially taking responsibility to help, as I say, even people in our group. Let alone our family. Let alone our community. And even when we get social, so-called “engaged Buddhism” starting in the West... It started actually in Thailand. But in any case, we start to have it. So in some Buddhist centers they have prison programs, for example. So, a few people volunteer and they go to the prisons and they have Dharma lessons for prisoners. Very nice. They still don’t get along with their parents. They still don’t go to visit somebody who's sick. Or bring food to somebody who's sick in their center. But because they go to the prisons, then they think, “Ah, well I’ve done my social duty.” That's not enough.
Okay. Now, to get down to what do we actually do each day as a practicing Buddhist? There are certain types of practices that are recommended each day; and they are helpful. It means having Buddhism integrated as part of our whole day, not just as something that we do as a hobby – a little time during the day or during the week, but we forget about it the rest of the time. Now one point is important here, which is, the whole point of being a nice, kind person. Being a Buddhist doesn’t just mean to be a kind person. It means something in addition to being a kind person. So, of course we have to be a kind person. That is the basis. But that’s not exclusive to the Buddha's teachings. All religions teach us to be a kind person. You don’t even have to follow a religion to be taught that it is important to be a kind person. So, of course we try in our daily life to be of help to others. And, if we can't be of help, at least not to hurt others. Sort of the basic minimum. If we want to say, “That's my Buddhist practice,” okay. But don’t think that that's the “ real-thing” Buddhism. That's a very light version. But an absolutely necessary thing. Not something to be ignored. So, fine. We try to learn what it means to be a kind person and to be mindful of when we’re not acting like that, and to correct it.
This involves not getting angry with others. If we do get angry, apologize as quickly as possible. Try to be less selfish. Try to be sensitive to other peoples' needs and to the effect of our behavior on others. All these sort of things – very basic. If we are involved in some sort of business; we try to be honest in the business. If we deal with customers...if we are in some sort of service business...to remember that they are human beings just like I am and they like to be treated nicely, not to be ignored, or dismissed in a very unpleasant way. The last customer of the day deserves as much attention and care and pleasantness as the first of the day. All of this is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama refers to as “basic human values.” Not necessarily based on any philosophy or religion. And not just with strangers, where it's a little bit easier because you just see them for a few minutes and then you don’t have to deal with them after that. But with the members of our families, the people that we live with, the people that we work with, etc.. We don’t ignore those who are closest to us.
Classic example in the West: We go to visit our parents, or we’re staying with our parents, and they would like us to sit and watch television with them. I remember when my mother was alive and I would visit her, she would like for me to watch television with her, and the quiz shows...she loved quiz shows...and would always encourage me to try to answer the questions on the quiz shows. Like, “ How much does this refrigerator cost?” In these type of situations, it's very important to be generous – generous with our time. Not sit there and look totally bored. Not sit there and take out our rosary and do mantras while we’re sitting there in front of the TV. But actually be generous to our parents, give them this time. Try to answer the questions, no matter how stupid it might seem to us.
Now, we might not have to sit there the whole night! We could say, “I have other things that I need to do, but I’ll sit with you for a half hour, or an hour,” or whatever it is. But be kind. Don’t say cruel things like, “Oh come on, that's so stupid; it's such a waste of time; I have better things to do than that.” That's one of the bodhisattva vows – one of the secondary vows: “Go along with what the other person is doing, so long as it's not destructive."
So, if we are a Buddhist practitioner, when we get up in the morning it's very important to...it says this in so many texts...set the intention for the day. What is our motivation? Our motivation remember was: “What is the goal that we're trying to achieve? What am I doing with my life? What is the emotion behind that?” And then the intention to actually pursue that goal. When we wake up, ideally it should be, “Thank goodness I didn’t die during my sleep and how wonderful that now I have a whole day ahead in which I can work further along the Buddhist path.” Rather than, “Oh, not another day.”
It's the same thing when we go to sleep. Rather than, “Oh, thank God the day is finished and I can't wait to just sort of drop into unconsciousness,” more “I can't wait until I wake up next morning to continue.” So, what does this all come down to? It comes down to refuge. Refuge. I don’t use that word very much because I think that what it really is talking about is having a direction in our life. A direction in our life which is safe, which protects us from suffering. That's the whole point of refuge. It protects us from suffering. So, we’re going in a safe direction in our lives. So we reaffirm, “This is the direction I’m going in my life. It has meaning; it has purpose. I’m working in the direction of the Dharma – true stopping of all my disturbing emotions, all my unawareness, all my ignorance. I’m working in that direction, to get rid of all this junk on my mental continuum that's causing so much trouble. And to realize and actualize all the qualities, all the understanding, all the good qualities of heart and so on, that will bring that stopping about, that true stopping about.”
Whether we’re doing that for our own sake or we’re doing that for the sake of everybody – after all, the safe direction is both Hinayana and Mahayana. So, fine, whichever one. But that's the direction that I’m going in. That's the Dharma Jewel. The way that the Buddhas have done it in full, and the way that the arya Sangha – the highly realized Sangha, that's what the Sangha is talking about – have done it in part. So that's the goal that I’m seeking. And why? Well, I’m disgusted and really don’t want to continue suffering. Or, I have in addition to that, compassion for everybody else who has suffering, then there's some emotion behind it.
This direction in our life, this safe direction, this needs to be something which is really, very, very deep, very internalized. This is what makes us a Buddhist. Not just being a nice, kind person. It's in addition to being a kind person. For this to be really deep and really sincere... this direction... it's not very easy. Because what it really requires is total conviction that it's possible to achieve this. If you don't think it's possible, then it's just wishful thinking for something that... well, I don't know, it's just fantasy, isn't it? “I can become a Buddha? Come on. How can I become a Buddha?”
So, as a Buddhist in the beginning, of course, we’re not going to believe that it's possible. We might have faith, based on who knows what? Charisma of a teacher or whatever wishful thinking. But, we need to work on it. Work on becoming convinced that this is really possible to achieve these goals. If we’re really convinced it's possible, then you can really put your full heart and energy into it. Otherwise it's half-hearted. And it's going to require a great deal of understanding of the mind, the mental continuum, how the self exists... it can't be an ego trip... and a proper understanding of what we call Buddha-nature, the factors that will enable us to become a Buddha. Well what does that really mean?
So this is part of our work, as a Buddhist. To try to really understand of all these things. They're very, very important, so that this direction that we’re going in is something which becomes very, very stable in us. We’re fully convinced not only that I want to go in this direction, but that it's possible to achieve the goal.
So we start the day with reaffirming this intention. And we end the day with a dedication: with reviewing what we've done during the day. “Have I really followed this? How have I acted?” If we’ve acted against this, if we’ve gotten angry, etc., to admit that, regret, purification, there's all sorts of things we can do that help. And whatever positive force, whatever understanding we’ve gained, dedicate that toward achieving these goals. So we reaffirm the goal and I want to continue tomorrow as well. But it's important that this intention at the beginning of the day and dedication at the end of the day not be like two sides of a bookcase: that you just have something supporting it on this side, and something supporting it on that side, and that's it. It shouldn’t be like that. Tsongkhapa says, “This intention, this motivation, needs to carry through the entire day – not just the beginning, and not just the end,” which means reminding ourselves of this during the day. Remembering it.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a very lovely method for that. He has the “mindfulness bell,” which, during the course of a day, a bell rings at random times and that everybody stops for a few moments and regains their mindfulness of the intention, motivation, etc.. So one of my students has programmed his cell phone so that the cell phone gives a beep at various times during the day. He uses this as his mindfulness bell. So there are various methods that we can use to help us to remember this motivation, if it's not something which comes to us automatically. There's also the custom to reaffirm our refuge, our safe direction, and make three prostrations in the morning when we get up and in the evening before we go to sleep. Very good, very helpful. Obviously, if we take an overnight flight on an airplane, we don't get out into the middle of the aisle and do prostration. If we can't do that or we're in the army, in an army barrack, or whatever, then you just hold your hands in a respectful position and imagine that you are prostrating. That's fine. It's the state of mind that's important.
Then, if we have the ability, then we would set up the water bowls, offerings, etc., and a little bit of an offering shelf or an altar. But before that, one sweeps the room. There's a whole set of preliminaries that one does: sweeping the room, cleaning up. That's very important. The way that it's explained is that we're showing respect to the honored guests that we are inviting to our meditation session, the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, etc.. If Buddha was actually coming to our house physically, certainly we would sweep the floor, and we would pick up our clothes and make the bed. Similarly, we do that before our morning meditation.
So, this is a practice, that we do and it helps on another level. Because if our environment is clean and neat, the mind is influenced by that, and the mind becomes neat and clean. If the environment around us is chaotic and messy, that has an influence on our minds – on our way of thinking. So, an orderly environment is helpful.
Then, we make some offerings. Usually it's water bowls. They don't have to be made of gold; they don't have to be made of silver. Milarepa just used his drinking cup. Just something. And if we make an offering of food, you don't leave it on the altar until it gets rotten and then throw it away. You leave it for a day, or maybe two days, and then you eat it. The water that you offer in the bowls, at the end of the day, either you use it to water the plants...but obviously you don't want to drown the plants by flooding them with water too much... or pour it down the sink, but not the toilet. In other words, we try to show respect for what we're doing. It's very important. It's not just respect for the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. It's respect for ourselves and respect for our spiritual path.
Then having a daily practice – very, very important. By daily practice, I don't mean merely what we've been saying, that you practice all day long by trying to apply the teachings in our life, in real life situations. But also, a formal meditation session.
Now, what do we do during our formal meditation session? First of all, the environment. It's not necessary to have the incense and the music, and elaborate everything. If you have that, fine. But don't make it into an ego pride trip. It's not necessary. Simple is always better. We need to first of all, in our practice, quiet down and set a very strong intention. We already set our motivation. But set the intention that, “During this session, I’m going to try to not fall asleep, not get dull, and not just sit there and have mental wandering.” It's very easy to skip that. We sit down and forget about any of the setting ourselves in the proper mental framework. Our attitude is, “I’m going to be late for work and I just want to get through this as quickly as possible,” and then you speed through it and, “Thank goodness I finished. Maybe I set the new speed record for going through my practice, that's good.” And then we go off and do our day. So daily practice gives us stability. It give us continuity in our lives. No matter what's going on in our lives, there's always one part of the day which remains stable. So having a daily practice is very helpful for that.
Daily practice doesn’t have to be long. It can be five minutes. It doesn’t matter. Just something. What is always recommended is the seven-part practice. Shantideva outlines it very nicely, the great Indian master. We already started it with the prostration and making offerings. Then openly admitting the mistakes that we’ve made, the shortcomings that we have. Regretting them, “I'm going to try not to repeat it.” Reaffirm my direction in life, “I’m going to do something positive to counteract it.” And then, rejoicing in the positive things that others have done, that we have done. Requesting the teachers to teach and not to go away – that I’m serious, I really want to go all the way to liberation, enlightenment. And then the dedication at the end: “Whatever positive force comes from this, and from everything that I and others have done, may it contribute, not just to my own enlightenment, but to everybody's enlightenment.” We read over and again in all sorts of teachings...Indian, Tibetan, and so on...this is the most basic fundamental Buddhist practice, the seven part practice.
Then in addition, if you want to do mantras, if you want to do any other type of meditation, fine. But this is the basis of it. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, what we really need the most is what's called “analytical meditation,” which is basically...at our stage...thinking over the teachings – taking some topic and thinking about it in terms of our personal individual lives. For example: “I'm having difficulty with this person at work,” and, then we analyze that. “What do I find difficult? What's the problem? How do I deal with it? I need to develop patience. What are the teachings on patience? What is the method?” We sit there and we practice being patient while we think of this person. That's Buddhist practice. That is exactly the word: “practice.” We are practicing to be able to do that later in actual real life situations. And then during the day, try to remember these teachings. Try to actually apply them. That's real Buddhist practice – not just having an “Om Mani Padme Hum” screen-saver on our computer. Or having the computer program so it repeats the line “Om Mani Padme Hum” going through the screen every second, or whatever. I mean, come on!
And then, as I say, at the end of the day, review what we’ve done. Certainly don’t feel guilt, but, “I’m going to try better if I haven’t done so well.” And, always remember the basic feature of samsara is that it goes up and down. Progress is never linear. It's never going to get better every day. No matter how hard we’re trying, some days will go better, some days will go poorly. Some days we will feel like practicing, some days we won’t. That is perfectly normal, and it's going to continue to happen until we become an arhat – a liberated being. That's going to be a long time from now.
That means we’re not going to get rid of anger or greed until we become an arhat. That's very sobering. It may be less, but we’re not going to get rid of it completely until then. So, up until arhatship, it's going to go up and down. And what is the attitude that is most helpful in that situation? It's called “equanimity.” That translates into the attitude of, “So what? I don’t feel like practicing, I’m in a bad mood, so what?” You just go ahead anyway. What do I expect from samsara? Of course I'm going to not feel like practicing some days. Of course I'm going to get into a bad mood. So what? No big deal. And if I need to take a break for a little while, fine. No big deal. We have to avoid the two extremes of being too hard on ourselves, or treating ourselves like a baby. But just go ahead, no matter what. That's called, “the armor-like perseverance” that protects you from any situation. You just go on. And you use skillful means. You learn from the Dharma what are the skillful means for dealing with difficult situations and apply them in practical life. I'll give you an example.
I live on a busy corner in Berlin. And a couple years ago they built, underneath me on the ground floor, a very, very popular cafe. And, it is open from 7 o'clock in the morning until 3 o'clock in the morning, seven days a week. In the summer...it's on a corner, my house is on a corner...so there are tables outside on both sides of my house. People outside drinking beer, talking loudly, laughing, etc., until 3 o'clock in the morning, every night. So, after a short period of lying in bed at night and trying to go to sleep with all this noise...and having visions of medieval times, and having large vats of boiling tar that I can pour down on the people – dismissing that as the solution, then I remembered the teaching, “Give the victory to the others, accept the defeat on yourself.”
My kitchen is the only room in the house that doesn't face the street. I moved my mattress and put it on the floor of the kitchen and I sleep in the kitchen the whole summer. This way, the doors are closed. It's quiet. I'm very, very happy. It's comfortable. And I give the victory to the others. So, very practical application of this teaching. And, no big deal sleeping in the kitchen. So what? You put the mattress up against the wall during the day and put it down at night. No big deal.
So, like that. We need to be inventive, creative, with the teachings. Apply them. And in order to do that, we need to know the teachings. So as part of daily practice, which is very, very helpful, is to read each day, if we can, the list of the bodhisattva vows, the guidelines of how to deal with difficult situations, The Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices, The Seven-Point Attitude-Training, The Eight-Verse Attitude-Training, and these lojong texts are filled with very, very practical advice. These are the most practical teachings. And when you go through them each day, it not only helps you to be mindful of them...in other words to remember them...but also, if you're facing a particular problem, then as you read through, you come up with what would be the most appropriate thing to apply. And then you stop there and you think about it, and really decide how I'm going to apply this. Very, very useful. Very practical.
So these are daily practices, how we practice Buddhism in the West. I think it's appropriate to anybody, in any situation – whether the West, whether the East, whether nowadays, whether in the past, or the future. And, as I said, to get any results, we need to put in a lot of hard work. And, it's not going to come cheaply.
Nowadays, teachings are quite readily available. I was mentioning before, at a lot of Dharma centers, or big events, you have to pay to get in. But also...like the example of my web site...a huge amount of Dharma teaching is available there for free. So, as long as you have a computer and access to the Internet...which is becoming easier and easier around the world...then you don't have to travel anywhere. And you don't have to pay anything. You can just get all the teachings, or at least a lot of teachings, and it will just increase in the future.
So is this defeating the purpose of the Buddhist training to train our personalities to really put in the effort to make a transformation? Would it be better to make the teachings not so easily available: you have to pay for everything? Keep them hidden and secret in some libraries that you can't get access to very easily? Well, you could make an argument for that, surely. But, on the other hand, if the teachings are available for free, and more easily accessible everywhere, still you have to put in the hard work to actually make the time to read the teachings, to study them, to go through them, and so on. And, when there are Dharma centers and there's no teacher at the Dharma center...as is the case in many places in the world still...then rather than spending the entire time together just chanting and playing bells and drums, it might be helpful...you can do that part of the time if you like, that's not a problem...but it might be nice if everybody read something beforehand and comes in and discusses it, tries to understand. Debate back and forth with each other, “What have you understood from this?”
So, regardless of how many benefits we have now in the modern time, in terms of more easy access to the teachings, nevertheless we're still going to have to put in the hard work to understand them and internalize them. And, there's no cheap way around that. So in this respect, there's nothing special about us, practicing in the West. So we need to take advantage, then, of the opportunities that we have. And, yes, as I say, be a kind person. But that's just the start. That's just the basis. If we're really going to practice the Buddhist path, that means working toward liberation and enlightenment. So we need to understand what that is and develop the proper motivations for achieving that, and become convinced that it is actually possible.
So, what questions do you have?
Question: The questions concerns how do we become convinced of the possibility that we can actually achieve liberation and enlightenment?
Alex: It has to do with understanding: What do we mean by “mind,” the mental continuum, which is a continuity of mental activity. I'm not going to go into a detailed teaching here, but what are the basic characteristics of that mental activity? It goes on, moment to moment to moment, with a different object each moment; but nevertheless, the actual defining characteristics are the same. And is confusion, unawareness, anger, and so on, are they part of that essential nature of that mental activity, or is it something which is what's called “fleeting”...in other words like a cloud...and can be removed? So, it really requires an understanding of the nature of mental activity – or mind.
And this requires not just deep study of the nature of the mind: what appearances are, how appearances arise, all these sort of things; but also some experience of trying to actually observe what's actually going on, and to recognize what's going on in our daily experience, in the daily moment to moment. Also, I think what is important is the context of this type of study and practice, which is to understand what actually it means to be liberated and what actually enlightenment means. What are the qualities of it? If it's just a word, then that's too vague.
So one needs to really learn, what do we mean by liberation? What do we mean by enlightenment? And, don't think it's easy. Very, very subtle points. So, in the beginning, of course, we give what's called “the benefit of the doubt.” “I don't really know, but I will assume that it is possible,” and study further, and meditate further, because “I would really like to become convinced of this. I take it seriously and I will...for the moment...accept it. But I want to go deeper. Because, even if it's not possible, and I don't really understand it, but going in that direction seems like a pretty good idea. That it's certainly, from the little experience I have and from seeing people who have gone in that direction, they certainly have less problems and deal with life much better. So based on that, even if it's not possible, aiming in that direction, going as far as possible is pretty good.”
That's a good working basis to start with. And, as one of my friends said very nicely, “I don't know whether it's possible to achieve liberation or enlightenment. And I don't know if His Holiness the Dalai Lama is actually a liberated being or an enlightened being. But if I could become like him...like the Dalai Lama...and be able to deal with as many difficulties as he deals with, like having a whole Chinese nation against him, and the unbelievable problems and things that he faces, if I could become like that, and deal with such things, like His Holiness deals, that would be enough.”
This is why it's said that, for us, it is very difficult to relate directly to the Buddhas. I mean, their qualities are just beyond imagination. But, we can relate through the spiritual teacher. That's not just any spiritual teacher – not just some lama who's done a three year retreat and comes and teaches in a center. We're talking about the greatest of the great. That's the example that we want to look at, in terms of how to relate to enlightenment and liberation. Whether they're liberated or not, who am I to say? But here's somebody really with outstanding qualities. Then it gives us a great deal of...a realistic example.
I don't mean to say that all lamas who have done just a three year retreat and come to the West are not qualified and not inspiring – I don't mean to say that. But often we can become quite disappointed with their conduct, with the way that they handle situations. So it's best to look at a really outstanding example: so the greatest of the great lamas, since we have some access to them, we can go to their teachings. Their teachings are available on the Internet and so on. Same thing as in the case of lamas with somebody who has gotten a geshe degree. Or even somebody who is a tulku...a reincarnate lama...a rinpoche. It doesn't mean that they are necessarily of the highest quality. So it always says in the teachings, “Examine the teacher for a long time.” That's important.
There's another point about practicing Dharma in the West...last point, because we need to end...is that often all sorts of lamas, and tulkus, and geshes, and kenpos, and whatever, come through our cities, some cities more than other cities. And they even give initiations. And we've never heard of this person; we don't know anything about them. And yet, there's this event which is happening; and many of us just go because other people are going, or because it seems as though we should go. That's not really proper.
It's the same thing with so much being available on the Internet. Just because something is available, like somebody coming to our city and giving an initiation, or just because it's on the Internet, or just because there's a book that you could buy, doesn't mean that it is reliable. You have to check up. Find out “Who is this lama.” Ask. For the first time...it's the same thing, like looking at something on the Internet or a book. You can read it. You can go to the initiation. That doesn't mean that you actually take the initiation and seriously accept this person as your tantric master. That's something very different. You want to go, check it out. That's fine. You read something on the Internet – well, is this garbage? Is this reliable? Who wrote it? If it's garbage – you forget about it. So, same thing. You are going to find lamas who come who are more qualified, some less qualified. Even those who are qualified, they might not resonate with you. You might not feel any connection with them. Check it out. Just because somebody has a title, or just because somebody knows how to perform an initiation ritual, that's not sufficient, as a qualification, to be your tantric teacher.
So, rather than saying that in the West the particular problem that we have is that not so much is available, I think it's just the opposite. Our problem is that too much is available. And how do we discriminate when you have...this I think is terrible...that there are three hundred different brands of Buddhism? Because every lama who comes starts their own center and there's three hundred of them available...either Internet, or wherever...how do you choose? This is a big problem. This is different from what has been in the past. I don't have the magic answer to that question. Just because something comes up number one in Google when you search, doesn't mean that it's the best. So we have to use our intelligence, our discrimination, to check it out and be patient, and not be premature in deciding that “This is for me – this is the best.”
So, let's end here with the dedication.
We think: “Whatever understanding, whatever positive forces come from this, may it go deeper and deeper, and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.”
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (20%)