Geshe Tenzin Wangyal tells us how to turn our daily challenges into meditation practice. Illustrations by Steve Heynen.
Six Tibetan Realms of Rebirth
Leaving everyday life and committing yourself to formal meditation practice is one way to enter the dharma, as demonstrated by the many yogis practicing in remote places and monks and nuns living a simple monastic lifestyle. Perhaps in your own life, you are considering this approach. You may be retired and financially secure and can clearly decide that this is the time to completely commit your life to practice, renouncing your ordinary lifestyle. For most of us in the West, however, it is hard to leave our lives in order to practice dharma. In fact, to do so could cause harm to our family and loved ones. So we have no alternative but to bring our dharma practice fully into our lives, which is just as valid an approach as leaving our life behind to practice dharma.
There are certainly times when you can leave your daily working life—times for learning and for personal retreats—but these events should not be the primary emphasis of your spiritual development. Such special occasions are opportunities to gain a clearer idea of how to practice and to find some perspective as you reflect upon how you are going to integrate practice into your life. But you should not depend on them to grow and achieve liberation.
A conflict may emerge for those of us who pay bills and have children and have an ordinary, beautiful life. We feel creative and self-motivated within our ordinary life. We also know the value of formal practice, yet that sometimes conflicts with family or job responsibilities. On top of that, we don’t even know if we are making progress in our practice, because we feel we are not doing it enough. Many times, with the pressures of daily life, we find ourselves saying “Oh, I didn’t do any formal practice at all last week. I am a bad practitioner. I committed to do this, and now I just dropped everything.” We feel bad about ourselves and our path.
So we end up with a big gap between the reality of our everyday lives and our formal meditation, and big gaps like this are a problem. Because we are consumed by the fact that we are not practicing enough, we don’t apply the antidotes we learned to counteract our habitual patterns. We don’t deepen our experiences of practice. Overall, we are uncertain how to judge the success of our meditation practice. We are not skillful enough to bring the practice into our lives and build a bridge between dharma and the challenges of everyday life, including the many relationships it involves.
To illustrate this gap, I give the example of a friend of mine who wants to have a loving relationship with her mother. Fighting and arguing between them has been a pattern for a long time. Since her mother is quite old, she wants to change this pattern of arguing. She is now determined to make a change. With this in mind, she plans for a wonderful time with her mother on a weekend visit, thinking “I’m going to try my best, take some time off, and spend quality time with my mother. We will go out for dinner and a movie. We’ll relax together and enjoy each other’s company.” On Friday, as she leaves work and drives out of the city, she encounters lots of traffic and arrives late. When she arrives, her mother opens the door with, “You’re late,” followed by, “Oh, what have you done to your hair?” That is just enough to awaken the old karma, the spontaneous manifestation of the same mother and the same daughter, and they are back in the same argument. Sparks fly.
This experience shows that my friend was not really engaging deeply enough in her practice for the change she desired to spontaneously manifest. Intellectually, she wanted it to, but internally things hadn’t really changed. If they had, perhaps she could have responded to her mother’s comments with humor, exaggerating her comment and laughing. “Oh yeah, Mom, my hair. It’s very civilized all week, but come Friday it goes wild.” Some humor, something that changes the direction, is often all it takes. If her practice had ripened in her, or touched her as deeply as her mother’s comments had, she could make that shift. Or perhaps she would not even hear the comment. She would be focusing on putting her bag down and washing up rather than listening for and identifying herself entirely as a target for her mother’s comments.
If we were following the path of leaving daily life in order to practice dharma, perhaps we would be focused on renouncing negative emotions, such as anger. And certainly, if you don’t have anger, you’re not missing anything. But if you do experience anger, it doesn’t help to pretend it’s not there, or to suppress it. Rather, consider how you can give some space to it, because it is already in you, and cultivate its antidote, which is love. Then your anger can actually become the foundation for the achievement of wisdom.
One of the well-known practices in the Bön Buddhist tradition is called the six lokas practice. While it is a formal meditation practice done on your cushion in a quiet setting, I introduce it because discussing it will help to address how each of us can work to have the results of our formal practice manifest in everyday life. According to the Bön tradition, the six lokas, or six realms, are the actual dimensions of suffering which make up samsara, or cyclic existence, and beings migrate from one to another of these realms through countless lifetimes. It is only through the attainment of buddhahood that one is free from this cycle of birth and death. The underlying cause of the suffering of all of cyclic existence—of each of these realms—is ignorance, or not recognizing one’s true nature as open, clear, and perfected. Until you do, you are reborn in a realm if the root cause for that realm drives you as you transition through the bardo, or the stage between one life and the next.
Anger is the root cause to be born as a hell being; greed and attachment leads to the hungry ghost realm; ignorance and doubt are the seeds to be born in the animal realm; jealousy is the root cause of the human realm; pride results in the demi-god realm, and a balanced array of emotions in blissful self-absorption causes one to be born in the god realm. These emotions may be familiar to each of us as troublemakers in our everyday lives. Psychologically, from one moment to the next we may experience ourselves transitioning from one realm to another, driven by conflicting emotions. Certainly, as we look at our families, corporate organizations, and countries, we can observe each of these realms playing out as the various manifestations of human suffering. In fact, the human realm is an ideal place to work with these emotions, to cultivate their antidotes, and to recognize one’s true nature.
In this six lokas practice, the practitioner examines and reflects upon the causes and conditions of the various forms of suffering in cyclic existence. Through visualization and mantra, the practitioner burns, clears, purifies, and overcomes the causes and results for each of the realms of suffering. Through this practice, we are reminded of the truth of impermanence, we deepen our compassion for the suffering of all beings, and we clear away the obstacles to realizing our natural mind, which is Buddha.
Here is a simple description of how the practice works. If you are working with the purification of the hell realm, for example, where the suffering is caused by anger, you reflect deeply on the times in your life when you have acted or spoken driven by anger. You would then take refuge and rouse devotion in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha; purify anger and the potential for anger to manifest in the future through a visualization practice and mantra; and cultivate love, the antidote to anger.
Self-reflection on our negative actions of body, speech, and mind is essential to the practice. We can use the ten precepts—ten actions to be avoided and ten virtues to be cultivated—as a very useful guideline to support self-reflection by considering how we violate the precepts with our body, speech, or mind. For example, we may reflect upon our negative speech by thinking “Driven by anger I spoke harshly to my mother. I am aware of the suffering this action caused. In my spiritual development, changing that behavior would make a difference.” The precepts allow us to be more definite in seeing and working with our negativity.
You could look at the ten actions to be avoided in relation to greed, the root cause for the suffering of the hungry ghost realm, as you seek to clear the causes and conditions of this realm of suffering. Look at your actions in the past, remembering those times when you were stuck in your version of the hungry ghost realm, feeling incomplete and empty and needing so much to be filled up. You may realize that you gossiped because of an underlying feeling of being inadequate and hungering for attention. Reflecting upon the suffering of yourself and others caused by this action and developing sincere remorse, you can now connect to your inherent open awareness.
This open awareness is represented by the Buddha, and is also at the very foundation of your being. When we take refuge, this is what we are truly taking refuge in. It is this open awareness that allows you to look very closely at the suffering that arises in your life due to being driven by greed and attachment. Then, after reflecting on the nature of greed and how the realm of the hungry ghost manifests in your life, and reflecting that countless others are suffering in this way, you apply the skillful means of visualization and mantra. The causes and conditions of the suffering are penetrated, destroyed, and purified, and the antidote of generosity is cultivated.
As important as your hour session of meditation is—reflecting on the causes of the hell realm and cultivating the antidote of love, or reflecting on the greed of the hungry ghost realm and cultivating the antidote of generosity—the time when you really grow spiritually is when you are challenged in your life. You grow when your mother opens the door and greets you in that familiar way that invites you to either manifest the seeds of your anger or to exercise your awareness. In the same way that you build muscle when you lift weights, your wisdom muscle is built when you are challenged in life. The challenges are not easily found in a comfortable retreat setting. But they are certainly found in everyday-life settings.
In daily life, there are many times when we unexpectedly encounter problems, and we don’t always greet these encounters joyfully or with strength. Sitting on our meditation cushion is a good time to bring these situations to mind, and then to look directly at those encounters, with the support of our refuge in the Buddha as open awareness. In order to bring the fruit of practice into the realities of everyday life, it is important to look deeply and directly at yourself, to examine your actions of body, speech, and mind. The teachings and practices give you ways to overcome and transform negative emotions, so you can examine yourself with confidence. It is not the case that the closer you look the scarier it gets.
You also do not take this opportunity for reflection as a means to over-analyze your behavior or to develop guilt. You look closely and directly because you feel like a warrior. You can look at your life with strength, with power, with motivation, and with a solution. Because you have a means to transform your life, you actually feel grateful when you can see your stuck places, rather than being fearful, overly intellectual, or guilt-ridden.
By looking closely with the bravery of a warrior, we can grow and transform the self that encounters issues and problems in life. We can shift from being driven by anger or greed or ignorance to abiding in the open space of awareness. We may discover that in this open space of awareness, the antidotes of love, generosity, clarity, openness, peacefulness, and joyful effort naturally and spontaneously arise.
If you are ripened through your practice, if you have allowed your practice to touch those places of weakness in you, when anger arises in daily life, you will not be driven by that anger. In the best case, anger becomes the fuel for the spontaneous expression of love or kindness, or at the very least, you may find some space to host that anger without being driven by it.
In order to love fully, you need to understand the wisdom of emptiness, which I often translate as openness. Openness is the ground of our being. But how do you actually become more open in the face of anger? I have clear advice: keep silent; don’t act. Usually we think acting out is a way of taking care of things when we are angry. “I really have to speak up about this!” Instead, create space by not acting. Give more time. You may think that not acting sounds too simple, but that is my advice. If you are able to give time, you will create space. If you are not able to give time, if you are not able to not act, you will have driven actions, driven speech, and driven thoughts, all of which result in the ten negative actions to be avoided. Instead, guide your actions, speech, and thoughts with the antidotes and with the ten virtues. Guide yourself rather than being driven by your emotions. To make this possible, you must give time, even though it is sometimes very hard. When people are angry, they have to do, do, do! How fast you feel the urge to act is often the clear message that it is not time to act. The thought “Now I have to act” is a clear message that you need to allow more time and space. And when you give space, you often make the amazing discovery that you don’t have to say or do anything. Have you felt that?
If your practice is ripened, awareness is spontaneous. If your practice is not that ripened, a little conscious effort is useful. When you reflect on your life, you try to prepare the causes and conditions for ripening. When you take personal time to practice, you build the foundation and reflect, so you are ready, or almost ready, to change something in your life. When a situation that challenges you arises, you apply a little extra effort to shift your behavior and make the change. Once things change, the benefit of change itself brings power to your awareness, and the next time a challenging situation arises, your awareness is stronger, and you need less effort to shift your behavior. In this way you experience the completion or the result of your practice in your everyday life.
The gap between the opening of your heart in your practice and seeing the fruit in results in your daily life is a very important gap to bridge. We have already discussed reflecting upon our challenges and bringing this reflection to the cushion, looking directly with open awareness at our emotions and conflicts. When we have developed our practice of reflecting with openness, we must keep creating bridges between our practice and our behavior, so that we can make changes in our lives. Perhaps we experience love, but it is only half-ripened, and so a little encouragement to manifest that love would be nice. If you can manifest love in your kitchen or your workplace or with colleagues or with your family, if love can manifest in those particular situations where it seems necessary, that will be a practice. It is not a formal practice, but definitely it is a practice. I would give more credit to those times when you are conscious and aware even when you are challenged and pushed. In those cases, your spiritual muscles are exercised. When you pay attention to the difficult places and are able to shift them, that is great joy. You can see right in front of your eyes the areas where you have difficulty and the shifts you are able to make.
Perhaps as you have grown through your meditation practice, you have learned to be nice where otherwise you were not. Think of that as a practice, instead of thinking, “I missed my practice, my half-hour of sleepy meditation, this morning.” What is the big deal of missing that meditation when you have been kind to somebody in that difficult situation? Consider the success of your day rather than the failure of missing a session of practice. It is important to think, “Yes! I am practicing!” The idea of feeling guilty and inadequate because you are not on the cushion doing your silent meditation is not useful.
I’m not saying formal practice is not important. It is. But we can expand our notion of practice in order to bring the results into everyday life. If we look closely at our lives, we always have time to practice. Do I need to meditate quietly in order to create a little extra problem to work with? No, the long line for the security check at the airport is perfect. I can get agitated and manifest my six realms there—and in many other places—quite easily. In terms of the practice, that time is completely available to practice the virtues and the antidotes. That time becomes wonderful practice as you live your everyday life, conscious and working with the situations of life, and your formal practice supports you to make the changes that benefit you and others.