Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Our mind is like hard ground that has not seen water for a long time, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. As meditation practitioners, we begin to till that ground so that we can grow the mind of enlightenment.
The Buddhist teachings are as vast as you can possibly imagine—and beyond that. At some point you might think you understand, but the reality is that the teachings are infinite. Even if you’re a bodhisattva on the fifth level, the person on the eighth level knows more. The dharma is like a huge mountain that we climb very slowly, taking little steps. But each step is profound; each step is amazing.
Practicing the dharma is traditionally said to be like walking through a heavy mist. It slowly, slowly enters into our bones; it slowly enters into who we are. People think of enlightenment as sudden transformation, like a light bulb that’s off one second and on the next: Prince Siddhartha is under the tree, you turn on the light, and he wakes up as the Buddha. But his enlightenment was not a sudden thing; he went through a process. He actually purified and transformed himself.
Many people have the idea that meditation means not thinking: the less we think, the better our meditation is. But meditation is really about changing our perception of the world. That is a scary idea, because we would like to follow the path to buddhahood but end up more or less the same person. We think, “I’m going to be enlightened and I’m going to be me. I’m gonna get all the goodies.” None of us thinks, “Maybe I’m going to be totally different. Maybe my process of engaging the world will be so different I won’t even recognize myself.”
Meditation helps us to do one particular thing: to change. Meditation changes how we relate to the world—that’s why we do contemplative practice. In a sense, we are re-educating ourselves—not in some esoteric spiritual sense, but just as human beings. Meditation is a practice through which we really become human. We become decent and workable. We have caught ourselves, our habitual selves, and we begin to change the way we look at things.
In meditation, we begin to learn about ourselves as basic human beings, and when we learn about ourselves, we learn how to change. Our mind is like hard ground that has not seen water for a long time. That ground is not capable of giving nourishment to anything. Whatever is planted in it dies. Nothing grows. As meditation practitioners, we begin to till our mind so that we can grow something, the mind of enlightenment. We’re trying to change.
The mind of enlightenment manifests as bodhicitta, which means that one is constantly and naturally thinking of the benefit of others. We could ask whether our own mind is like that. When we get up in the morning, is our immediate feeling one of warmth toward others and how we can benefit them? It could happen. But generally we think about ourselves. So how do we get from here to there?
Mindfulness, or shamatha meditation produces a mind that is able to settle. When we are doing spiritual practice, we have to have a mind that is able to stay in the moment, stay in the situation, long enough to absorb and understand. If we say, for example, “May the suffering of all sentient beings cease and may they enjoy happiness,” the mind that contemplates this has to be able to remain in the space of compassion long enough to be truly changed. If it can’t stay there, then bodhicitta will never develop; it will never take root.
There are said to be five aspects of the mind that are always present, no matter what we are doing. One of these aspects is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the aspect of conventional mind—the mind we have right now—that holds on to something. It is the ability of the mind to rest on a cup long enough to allow our hand to pick it up. It is the ability to hold an image in our mind or to stay on a spot long enough to understand what is going on.
In mindfulness practice, we are learning to extend this very basic quality of our mind. The project of training the mind in this way is much like the way we relate to children: when we’re teaching them what to do, we have to remind them again and again. We are training the mind in a similar way—bringing it back, bringing it back, bringing it back.
At this point, we aren’t even talking about Buddhism, really. The original texts that talk about mindfulness come from a meditative tradition that existed in India prior to the time of the Buddha. These teachings were incorporated into Buddhism because it was understood that if you wanted to train spiritually, you first needed to do this practice to stabilize the mind.
What is it that hinders mindfulness and the development of stable mind? In the course of meditation we begin to see that the mind is perpetually in motion. If we watch our mind, we realize it is always in turmoil—not necessarily in a dramatic way, but always moving, like waves on the ocean. We see this movement as thoughts.
When we do mindfulness practice, we learn to recognize this movement of mind and to separate out the many levels of thought. We do this by using the breath or other object of meditation to get some perspective on what is going on. When mindfulness is stabilized with the breath, we are in the immediate moment and awareness is right there, just seeing. As soon as we go off and start thinking about something, awareness will bring us back.
According to a famous Zen saying, bringing Buddhism to a new culture is like taking a flower and holding it next to a rock. Hopefully the flower will take root, but it takes a long time. Our minds are like the rock, and the dharma is a beautiful flower. How long is it going to take for this flower to take root in us?
Change is not going to happen instantly; it is a natural evolution that takes time. The more you learn about the so-called high level teachings, the more you understand the importance of patience. Patience means dealing very literally with every kind of situation in our lives. As each thought and situation arises, we can slow down and begin to train ourselves, little by little. Ironically, the quickest way to understand the great nature of mind is to have this mundane patience. We are not content with our neurosis, but we are content that we will go at our own pace.