Advice from four prominent Buddhist teachers on opening up to the dharma so it really changes your life. Trish Deitch Rohrer interviews Judy Lief, The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, John Tarrant, and Philip Moffitt.
They say it’s as difficult for the dharma to penetrate the heart of a student as it is for a flower to grow on a rock. It’s not that we can’t intellectually grasp the concepts the Buddha taught—we can. But when it comes to taking the Buddha’s teachings in deeply enough so that they cut through our confusion and ignorance, we may fall short. To practice Buddhism, we have to change not only our minds, but our lives. How do we do that? How do we make ourselves truly receptive to the teachings, so that they deeply root themselves in us, like a flower in fertile soil? We asked four teachers of various traditions, who talked about this from their own experience as teachers and as students themselves.
—Trish Deitch Rohrer
Judy Lief: Our Obstacles Are the Path
Trish Deitch Rohrer: What can we do as students to help the dharma penetrate? What did you do?
Judy Lief: The first thing I remember learning—and I think it’s the first important thing—is how ignorant I was. Because what really keeps the dharma from penetrating is thinking that you know anything. I think there’s some kind of humbling process, or surrendering process, that really provides the initial entryway: you realize that your solid perceptions aren’t that solid, that your discipline isn’t that disciplined, that your delusions of being in control of your mind and your life are completely wishful thinking. That kind of stripping-down process seems essential.
I remember years ago there was a group of about five women having an audience with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Boulder. One of the questions that came up was, “How come we can see all these patterns so clearly—more and more we see the nature of our neurosis, what our hangups are, what our problems are, etc.—but seeing them doesn’t help?” In other words, even though we see what we’re doing, we still do it. So we were all very earnestly saying, “O.K. We were fine before when we were totally ignorant, and now we’re semi-ignorant and we see everything we’re doing wrong, but we still keep doing it. So what do we do now?”
Trish Deitch Rohrer: And what did he say?
Judy Lief: He refused to answer. He just cracked up. He thought it was really funny, that we were so worried about all this. I mean, part of the definition of being caught in the human realm, the realm of passion, is always feeling inadequate and hoping to change—getting caught up in all sorts of self-improvement schemes. In some ways all of that stuff just digs us further into our fundamental dilemma of always trying to get out.
That Khyentse Rinpoche audience is quite haunting, because there’s something really off about dwelling in concern about that. Not to diminish the importance of real obstacles, but there’s something fishy about taking the obstacles as something outside of what we have to work with. You know, making a distinction between what’s on the path and what’s off the path.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: You mean, we think the obstacles are off the path, when in fact they’re part of it?
Judy Lief: They are the path. Which is a tricky thing, because one could easily say, “Well, in that case, I’m just going to kick back and enjoy my obstacles.” But there has to be something beyond always trying to get rid of who we actually are, as though that particular person can’t progress along the path, when a superior person could.
I have another example. Years ago when Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wanted me to start teaching, I really didn’t want to. I had stage fright, and I’d throw up and get sweaty palms before I had to give a talk. My fear was a huge obstacle: my fear, my embarrassment, my pathetic-ness. But I had to keep teaching, because Rinpoche kept asking me to. And then at some point I realized that it really didn’t matter that I felt afraid. It didn’t matter whether or not I got over my fear. I just needed to keep giving talks. I had to. So if there was fear, there was fear, if there wasn’t, there wasn’t—who cares? There was a sense of thinking of others, which is also really important in relating to obstacles. Because we get so self-fixated. I realized that my obstacles were not the most important issue. In fact, there was some kind of honesty—some kind of rawness—that came along with the fear, which was actually a good thing.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: But, unlike fear, when the obstacle is ignorance, you don’t even know it’s there.
Judy Lief: Ignorance has a quality of invulnerability. You don’t feel vulnerable when you’re really ignorant. You actually feel you’re right. Or you feel helpless. Whatever your view is, it’s totally solid. You could say that another aspect of all of this is that your vulnerable points may be where things open up a little bit.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: So it might make sense to move towards your vulnerability?
Judy Lief: Exactly. And when you’re feeling invulnerable, you might be wise to be a little suspicious.
Judy Lief is the author of Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality.
The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Vision and Dedication
The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Generally, it is important for any student, practitioner or admirer of dharma to possess two things. The first is some kind of genuine vision—vision of what one wants to accomplish, both for the benefit of oneself and of others. Vision is also seeing what the dharma is teaching and what it will bring us. Without vision, our spiritual journey is like riding in a boat with no particular place to go—you just drift here and there. The second is dedication, which is also a key element.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: When you were a student, what vision did you have?
The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: My case was a little different because I was raised as a reincarnate lama. I received strong guidance from my teacher, who always reminded me of the importance of vision and motivation. Of course, at the same time, I was an ordinary student—nothing special. I lacked that vision for a long time. It’s something we develop naturally. Or sometimes we learn it the hard way.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: What’s the hard way?
The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: I think the “hard way” is when we start with no vision and no dedication.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: Is there a way to remedy that?
The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: We should start with the thought of how rare this opportunity is and how little time we may have. If you do not do it now, there’s not really going to be a “next time.” Sometimes we think, “I have lots of time. I’ll have a lot of opportunities to practice later on.” However, you have a saying in English: “Opportunity knocks only once.” So when the opportunity is there, I think we have to take it. We have to remind ourselves that we may not have the leisure to do this later. You never know when your stock will crash and you will have to go back to working one-and-a-half jobs.
It’s essential to think about this and realize the importance of taking advantage of the present opportunity and making the best use of it. Then it doesn’t matter whether it brings a full result or not. You’ve done your best. There’s no regret.
When we practice or study dharma, we also need to look at our level of dedication. If our dedication is half-hearted, or even less, then we cannot really expect a complete result. I see that in myself sometimes, and in many other students as well. Although we are only twenty-five percent committed to our practice, we still expect a hundred percent result. That’s a bit unrealistic. On the other hand, the greater your level of dedication, the more results that dedication will bring.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: Does that mean we’re not dedicated if we don’t have a daily practice?
The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: No. Many people have difficulties prioritizing things in their lives, especially their time, whether it relates to their practice or a job. Sometimes, the issue is not that we don’t have enough time—it’s that we don’t manage our time properly. So time management is a key issue for practitioners in the twenty-first century, and it is connected to the idea of dedication. For example, we may not mind paying nine bucks for a movie, but when it comes to a dharma program, we have a hard time saying, “Oh, I have some money for this.” So if going to see Terminator is a higher priority than going to a meditation program, then that’s O.K.—that’s our choice.
From this perspective, it seems necessary to focus on how to balance things. Dharma should be one of our priorities. We should see how dharma—how the spiritual path and the development of wisdom—is precious, and we should invest our money in it. It’s similar to investing in a university; it’s just a different kind of wisdom.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: So developing vision and dedication are the main things?
The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: For Western students, it’s especially important to have a vision of genuine Western Buddhism. Dedicating oneself to transplanting the dharma here is part of the whole vision. I would like to add one more comment. If our heart can be open and relaxed when we study and practice the dharma, then that is the key. Listen with an open heart. Listen to, study, and practice the dharma without preconceptions. Do it genuinely.
The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is founder and head teacher of the Nitartha Institute. His most recent book is Wild Awakening: The Heart of Mahamudra and Dzogchen.
John Tarrant: Loopy Thoughts and Laughter
Trish Deitch Rohrer: How do we as students begin to work with whatever it is in ourselves that’s keeping us from “getting” the dharma? Our ignorance seems so deep.
John Tarrant: Everybody’s is. That’s the point—ignorance is really deep until it’s not. So the first thing I would say about the proposition, “Our ignorance is deep,” is that a little bit of hell is all of hell, right? A little bit of delusion is all of delusion.
And, just the same way, a little bit of enlightenment is all of enlightenment.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: Is it?
John Tarrant: It’s obvious, don’t you think? So it becomes a matter of paying attention to which is which—which is suffering, and which is enlightenment. And after a while you stop choosing the suffering as much. A quality about being human is that you can step straight out of the deepest delusion into enlightenment.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: But some of us feel that we have to study, study, study, and purify, purify, purify…
John Tarrant: Right. But even in the moment you’re reaching, and full of longing, and thinking you don’t have it, of course you have it. Because your buddhanature’s always with you. It’s just that you haven’t noticed it yet. Someone asked Yunmen, the Chinese teacher, “I’m reaching for the light, please help.” And Yunmen said, “Forget about the light, give me the reaching.”
It’s always now and we’re always here now and enlightenment is just the basis of our consciousness. Thinking it’s not here is one of the things that keeps you from noticing it. There’s a simple Buddhist experiment for this: If you try thinking, “I need to get enlightened,” you feel terrible and deluded, and your fillings start to hurt. But if you take away that thought, “I need to get enlightened,” and you notice what’s really going on, you might discover you’re actually quite happy. That’s what koans do: they take away the confining thought. You might not be deluded in this moment at all. You might be quite free. You might feel the joy that’s just the natural joy of being human. What you’re doing then is trusting the universe, instead of employing all that effort.
That’s why the Way is creative, and why we encourage the arts: you rest in that place that the next line of the poem comes from, or the next note of the musical composition, or the next brush stroke. The imaginative thing is not going to come out of what we know. If it comes out of what we know, we’re just adding to a kind of knowledge we have, so it’s not a step out of our usual structures.
What’s wrong with most attempts to change ourselves is they make us smaller, instead of throwing away what makes us small. And even an attempt to, say, purify—well, how do you know you need purifying? You might think you need purifying because you’re such a horrible person, but your assessment of yourself is just part of your delusion. What if you are not even a “you”?
Trish Deitch Rohrer: Right. So how does one start to be creative with all this?
John Tarrant: Well, how about when you laugh?
Trish Deitch Rohrer: Is that creative?
John Tarrant: Don’t you think? We thought the world was one way and then we realized it was another way altogether. And then we laugh. That’s the structure of a joke. You and I might both be thinking, “Oh, this is so hard and I’ll never get it.” And then we realize that that thought is itself funny, and the thought explodes, and we laugh. In other words, laughter is something that happens when you step into enlightenment.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: Oh!
John Tarrant: And then noticing that, we start laughing more! So at any given moment, it could be true that you’re actually delighted with your life, right? And, then again, if you’re really upset, there may not be anything wrong with that. Thinking that being upset is bad is an extra layer—in fact, it’s hell, right? We’re agreed on that.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: Right.
John Tarrant: So, to get back to your original question, if I’m telling myself, “It’s very hard and I can’t do it,” how smart is that? It’s not true or useful. Sometimes I get it completely—some heavy state of mind turns into joy and awakening, just like that—boom! And then I move back again—boom! And so maybe we move between delusion and enlightenment fairly freely.
Wisdom is just seeing through these delusion worlds we create, and finding them really funny. I might say to myself, “I actually believed for a while that this beautiful life I have is horrible. Isn’t that funny?” So the thing is, we do get caught by thought worlds. We get caught by the thought world that says, “I can’t be happy unless I work hard and get enlightened. Or unless somebody treats me better.” And we realize, if we look at them, that those thoughts are a bit loopy. And, also, that’s O.K. We just have loopy thoughts. So what? It’s just that if we want to live in the world those thoughts make, that’s painful. That’s O.K. too, but it’s painful. And that’s it.
Trish Deitch Rohrer: That’s it?
John Tarrant: Yes.
John Tarrant directs the Pacific Zen Institute in northern California. He’s the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans to Bring You Joy.
Phillip Moffitt: Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose
Trish Deitch Rohrer: What can students do to make themselves really open to the teachings?
Phillip Moffitt: This is a good question for all students to be asking themselves. There’s a lot you can do. First you can look at how you relate to your teacher; then you can examine how much determination and intent you bring to your practice; and finally you can commit more fully to living the dharma in daily life.
In terms of how you relate to a teacher, often the view of a Western student is that the teacher as expert is going to tell you what to do—you can think of this as the “medical doctor model.” You as student are the passive one and the teacher is giving you a little dharma pill that will make all your suffering go away. This model can sometimes lead you to abandon your own power and authority.
You may think you need a personal commitment from a teacher who will be the good doctor and make all the decisions, telling you what to do. Thus, your liberation becomes your teacher’s burden. But you don’t need to be so passive or expect so much from the teacher. You just need to show up and be with the teacher and do your practice and the learning will happen. I never once thought about asking any of my teachers to make a commitment to me. My view was that I am the lucky one to have such a fine teacher and it’s up to me to find the time with the teacher and to be responsible for my own development. The advantage of this approach is that you don’t get confused about whose practice it is—it’s your practice.
The second aspect of really “groking” the teachings has to do with how you apply your formal practice. When it comes to bearing down in your practice, the Buddha said, “Not too tight, not too loose.” There’s a difference between bearing down—holding yourself responsible, bringing will into play, which is “right effort”—versus grasping after results.
It’s my experience that students haven’t worked to clarify that distinction for themselves as well as they might. You may discover that you have a pattern of grasping after results, and feeling defeated when matters don’t materialize. Then you get sloppy in your practice and lack the diligence, the constancy that provides the container for the dharma. My teacher, the Venerable Ajahn Sumedho, often says, “Just trust your practice,” and I’ve found this is true.
Then there’s the idea of integrating your meditation insights into your daily life. Many students in the West are good at conceptually understanding the dharma and are able to recite their learnings. However, they’ve not made the dharma a lived truth that brings freedom from grasping and aversion in their daily lives. So, you have the challenge of “making it your own” that has to happen in order for the dharma to inform your mind-states at work and in your personal life. It’s scary to try to do this because you’re aware of your own ignorance—the limits of your understanding. But practice always starts from where you are now, not in some future time, which is only a concept.
So commit yourself to bringing the dharma into your daily life. Each day look around and ask, “Are my actions at this moment causing suffering or not causing suffering?” Likewise, repeatedly come back to the moment by finding your breath. Or, for example, when you’ve got this boss who’s unfair and bullying, you use the situation as an opportunity for practice. You say metta, loving-kindness practice for your boss repeatedly, day after day with no goal, except to release your own heart.
Many students have said to me after doing this, “This person’s suddenly wanting to be my friend! I don’t want to be friends with them! I just want them to leave me alone!” The change was so profound—because as the Buddha says, only love conquers hate. But this change in the difficult person is not the goal—the practice is to open your heart. All the fruits of practice flow from liberating your heart.
Phillip Moffitt is a member of the teaching council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the founder and president of the Life Balance Institute.