The Practical Practitioner

Photo by Dana Styber Photography

Photo by Dana Styber Photography

If you want to get anywhere with your practice, says Anyen Rinpoche, it must be built on intellectual and experiential certainty.

As practitioners of the buddhadharma—whether we are new or experienced—we practice because we’re unhappy with the miserable state of samsara. In the Vajrayana tradition, we vow to bring temporary comfort and ultimate liberation to each and every sentient being mired in profound suffering, and at times it can be quite difficult to understand how we might possibly achieve such a lofty goal. Often I am asked how one can make progress on this path, and my advice is to be practical.

Most of us do not associate spiritual practice with practicality. It is an interesting phenomenon, since Western society and culture tend to be both practical and pragmatic. Why do we lose our heads when it comes to the dharma? If we do not cultivate a practical attitude focused on creating the best possible conditions to support our practice, an attitude of willingness to cut through all inner and outer distractions, then the dharma will not penetrate our heart and mind.

The practical practitioner puts forth all the effort necessary to bring about meaningful change. We must support our practice by being mindful, deliberate, and undistracted. these qualities help us integrate the dharma in every situation we might face. Beyond developing these supports, if we wish to achieve realization, we need to increase our spiritual capacity and deepen our practice.

Left to our own devices, many of us find that our spiritual practice doesn’t deepen. We try all kinds of things to wake ourselves up. Like dharma tourists, we chase after different spiritual teachers. We sit weekend retreats. We practice daily. We listen to cDs and read books. We do cleanses and work with healers. sometimes, when we are in the presence of a spiritual teacher, we may feel we understand the practice of meditation, but when we get home that understanding eludes us. this brings us to an even bigger question Western students often ask, which is, “is realization even possible for Western Buddhists?”

Logically speaking, it must be possible, since we all possess buddhanature. provided that we rely on the right methods, realization is possible for everyone. I, myself, follow the methods of the tradition called the secret Mantrayana Vajrayana. this tibetan tradition has led countless yogis, both ancient and modern, to realize and manifest completely omniscient wisdom. I find it pragmatic to follow a tradition that other yogis who came before me have followed in order to achieve realization. I would hesitate to follow a tradition that has been changed or modernized, because the results of following such a path are unknown. in our culture, we have a certain affinity for doing things our own way and for doing things that have never been done before. this is just the sort of impractical attitude that can cause obstacles in our dharma practice, because if we were to follow methods other than those taught and practiced by the lineage holders, we would have no idea what the results of our practice would be.

the tradition of the secret Mantrayana Vajrayana teaches that spiritual capacity can only be developed on the bedrock of certainty. certainty is the topic of one of Mipham rinpoche’s most famous texts, Beacon of Certainty. the theme of certainty also permeates the tantric, or Vajrayana, tradition as a whole. Whether we are on the path of sutra or tantra, we benefit from being certain of our practice, being certain of the instructions for the practice, and being certain of the way the practice should unfold when done correctly. When we’ve developed certainty, we become a practical practitioner, because we become mindful and cognizant of our entire experience and our progress on the path.

Gaining Confidence and Certainty

Certainty is an ever-deepening principle. When we work with developing certainty, we have to start right at the very beginning, with intellectual certainty. We relate to the ordinary world around us with our intellect, so it makes sense that we also connect with practice using our ordinary, everyday mind and intellect. We use our intellect to analyze the words of a teaching and to try to make sense of the nuts and bolts of it. This is how we glean some understanding of the practice. But many of us mistake this basic understanding, this intellectual certainty, for wisdom and realization. They are not the same.

We could say that this intellectual process we go through is an aspect of wisdom, but it is ordinary, everyday wisdom rather than transcendental wisdom. That means it is based in dualistic mind. When we apply intellectual certainty, we see that it is quite practical, but it is not enough to cut through our deeply ingrained habits of doubt and skepticism.

For example, the root of the entire mahayana path is the development of bodhichitta, the awakened mind that experiences compassion for all beings. In the beginning, we need to develop intellectual certainty in bodhichitta as a concept, so we investigate. Bodhichitta is divided into the classifications of conventional and ultimate. conventional bodhichitta is the twofold wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of self and others. Using our intellect, we can learn more about bodhichitta and deepen our certainty about what it means. We need at least a functional idea of bodhichitta to get beyond the charade of pretending to practice with it.

But to go beyond doubt and skepticism, we need to deepen our experience so we can change from having mere intellectual certainty to having experiential certainty. How does intellectual certainty give rise to experiential certainty? Intellectual certainty can be described as “understanding.” it can even be a deep and profound understanding of our practice. Taking again the example of awakening bodhichitta, we may develop the intellectual certainty that bodhichitta is beyond any partiality and contrivance; however, bodhichitta isn’t an intellectual experience. It is a genuine experience of feeling completely connected to each and every sentient being.

As ordinary practitioners, we can’t expect to experience the meaning of the dharma directly at every moment, but we may have glimpses of genuine experience. In the beginning, we may think to ourselves, “I understand what conventional bodhichitta is. it means that I could feel the same impartial compassion for each and every living being.” sometimes, when we are sitting on the cushion or engaged in daily activities, we come across a situation or state of mind that moves us very deeply, and in those moments we may actually have the experience of impartial compassion for sentient beings.

We’re able to recognize those experiences because we have the support of intellectual certainty. Without the support of our intellectual understanding, we could have an experience like that, but the moment might pass by without our being aware of it. So intellectual certainty is the basis for both an experience and the ability to recognize the experience. Catching a glimpse of the true meaning of our practice in this way gives rise to experiential certainty.

We should also know that experience is not the same as realization, however. These glimpses help us genuinely experience our practice, but they are limited, undeveloped, and seen through the lens of our dualistic vision.

Realization is possible if it is based on both intellectual certainty and experiential certainty. Without these two, realization is just something that we read about in a book or hear about in a teaching. It isn’t within our reach at all. How do intellectual and experiential certainty give rise to realization? Based on intellectual certainty, we are able to sit down and focus on a practice such as bodhichitta and catch glimpses of uncontrived and impartial loving-kindness and compassion. However, this experience is fleeting and unpredictable; we encounter it only by accident or by chance. Although it is larger than our ordinary, day-to-day state of mind, it is limited. We cannot sustain it, and we forget what it feels like when it isn’t there. According to the canon of Buddhist teachings, our momentary, uncontrived experience falls short of authentic realization, which is a thorough, complete, and lasting transformation of our ordinary mind.

Another way to understand the difference between experience and realization is that in the beginning we may feel the experience of the practice in our body. For example, when cultivating bodhichitta, we call to mind a being who is suffering and we may have a visceral reaction. We may feel a deep sense of connection and compassion toward that being, which we can extend outward to other beings. However, this is not true realization. Realization penetrates the mind. It colors our entire physical, mental, and spiritual experience, and does not simply arise from a visceral experience. It is, by definition, all pervasive.

We can apply threefold certainty—intellect, experience, and realization—to any practice. For example, when we learn about tonglen practice, we receive teachings and reflect on how the practice works. Then, based on listening and contemplation, we start to engage with the practice by working with the breath. As we exhale, we send out our root of virtue to all sentient beings. We say “root of virtue” because this virtue has the ability to nurture and ripen happiness in ourselves and others. As we breathe in, we take in all of the suffering and negativity of sentient beings, with the wish that we may alleviate their pain. Through practicing tonglen more and more, we begin to experience glimpses of what it means to actually do tonglen. The practice is accompanied by the physical feeling of sending our root of virtue to others and actually taking in their suffering, hardships, and negativity. Probably some of us have had this feeling while practicing ton-glen. Over time, if we practice diligently, we will perfect the paramita of generosity based on this practice, and we will realize an unlimited ability to share everything we have, including our own body, loved ones, and wealth, with every sentient being without exception—without even a hair of doubt.

We can apply threefold certainty to ordinary shamatha techniques and even to tantric practices such as generation and perfection stages. In fact, we must apply threefold certainty to these practices; otherwise, perfectly pure realization of the path will not arise in us.

The Spiritual Guide’s Support of Threefold Certainty

In the Buddhist tradition, the spiritual guide is the wish-fulfilling gem that gives rise to all levels of certainty, whether intellectual, experiential, or fully realized. Without the spiritual guide, it is impossible to access teachings on how to practice meditation. Reflecting on this, we realize that it’s impractical to think that we can meditate based on reading a book or attain realization by taking a course.

Without the teachings of the spiritual guide, intellectual certainty is impossible. Experiential certainty is even more difficult, because without a spiritual guide we lack not only the opportunity to personally hear teachings on how to meditate but also a connection with someone who is able to put those teachings into practice. The spiritual guide is not just an instructor; he or she is a personal example of realization. He or she shows what it means to actualize the dharma in one’s own life.

Of course, without intellectual and experiential certainty, realization cannot arise. In the Vajrayana tradition, realization is based not only on diligent practice and the development of intellectual and experiential certainty but also directly on the blessings of the spiritual guide and the lineage masters.

Many of us have met a spiritual guide from whom we have received teachings. If you have met one, I advise you to make as much effort as possible to develop and deepen your connection with that spiritual guide. Don’t be satisfied with spending a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months a year with him or her. Try as much as possible to forge a deep personal connection with that person by offering your body, speech, and mind, your service, and your effort in practice.

If you have not yet found a spiritual guide, and you base your meditation practice on going to a dharma talk here and there or perhaps reading a book, I urge you to find a teacher with whom you feel karmically connected. Develop a relationship with that person and follow what he or she teaches you.

In Western societies, dharma practitioners tend to be deeply skeptical and often have difficulty committing to a spiritual guide. Part of the difficulty is that many people do not know how to tell if a teacher is authentic. Also, if you have not encountered a teacher with whom you feel a karmic connection, it is incredibly difficult to commit to a teacher and cultivate devotion.

If you are impulsive and fail to examine the spiritual guide properly at the beginning of the relationship, instead of being practical and levelheaded, you might instead simply dive headfirst into a commitment. If you haven’t carefully considered that commitment, you could at some later point become frightened or doubtful and sever the connection with your teacher and your practice.

Understanding the appropriate qualities to look for in a spiritual guide is important. If you don’t know what to look for, you will have difficulty developing confidence in a spiritual guide and participating in that transformative relationship. It is necessary therefore to know what qualities to look for, because relationship with the spiritual guide is crucial—our intellectual and experiential certainty, and our realization itself, depend upon it.

The Qualities of a Spiritual Guide

In the tradition of the secret Mantrayana Vajrayana, there are three aspects of lineage teachings that a qualified spiritual guide will have received. He or she should have received vast amounts of lineage teachings, including empowerments, transmissions, and the instructions referred to as upadesha, meaning “instructions revealing profound method.” there are two styles of upadesha teaching: those that originate with the words of Buddha shakyamuni (kama teachings) and those that were hidden by realized masters as treasures and later rediscovered by treasure revealers (terma teachings). If you are a student of the secret Mantrayana Vajrayana tradition, you will want to examine whether the spiritual guide has received these lineage teachings.

No matter what school of Buddhism we follow, the spiritual guide should be adept at listening, contemplating, and meditating. Listening means that they have received many teachings in the tradition to which they belong. It makes sense that the person we choose as a guide must have a profound understanding of the teachings he or she is transmitting. Without this quality of vast listening, it isn’t possible for the guide to bring us to the level of intellectual certainty.

Second is the quality of contemplation, which yields practical experience. When an authentic practitioner contemplates the teachings, they go beyond any doubt or skepticism, bringing insight into the words of those teachings.

The third quality is meditation, which illuminates the mind with glimpses of realization. Our own certainty can arise based upon the spiritual guide’s practices of listening, contemplating, and meditating.

The next three qualities a spiritual guide should possess are being learned, disciplined, and good-hearted. Being learned means having a profound store of knowledge. Being disciplined means the teacher practices what they teach and keeps formal commitments; for example, all their vows. Being good-hearted means the teacher genuinely cares for sentient beings and has the wish to benefit every being they meet. They are willing to undertake hardship and work for the benefit of others.

The final three qualities are having the abilities to expound the teachings, to debate, and to compose texts. First, the spiritual guide has the ability and confidence to teach whatever is necessary. They are also skillful at debate, having used logic to cut through all of their own doubt and skepticism. Finally, they are able to compose texts and teachings to benefit others.

We may think to ourselves, “it is too difficult to look for all of these qualities,” but there are simple methods for examining a spiritual teacher. For example, the sign of vast listening is a subdued and disciplined demeanor, completely free of arrogance, prejudice, and self-attachment. This demeanor emits bodhichitta. The sign of vast meditation is a mind free of afflictive emotions. Checking for these qualities will show if a spiritual guide is reliable.

If we don’t examine a potential spiritual guide before making a commitment, our connection with that teacher, and our connection to the dharma, could be troubled by skepticism and doubt. We can acknowledge that we live in a deeply skeptical culture, and that it takes effort to overcome the habit of overanalyzing and second-guessing. If we work at developing a personal and deep connection with a spiritual guide—about whom we have not even a hair of doubt—it is impossible not to gain threefold certainty in our dharma practice.

Certainty Gives Rise to Results

The dharma itself is a logical and practical system. The scriptures say, “The things that come earlier are the support for the things that come later.” We should do our best to start properly, taking the time to examine the spiritual guide, our own mind, and our goals in practice. When we do these things in the beginning, everything else falls into place: our practice gains momentum, we become confident about the true meaning of our practice, and our experience begins to resemble the instructions given by the spiritual guide. We look into our internal mirror to see how our practice is going, and we are inspired by what we see. Our energy for practice increases because we see how much it benefits us and everyone we know. When all these elements gradually come together, real change—and ultimately realization—dawns in the mind.


Anyen Rinpoche is the founder and spiritual director of the Orgyen Khamdroling Dharma Center in Denver, where he leads a shedra for Westerners and offers traditional teachings in the Longchen Nyingthig lineage. He is the author of Dying with Confidence and Momentary Buddhahood (Wisdom).