Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse is one of the truth-tellers of modern Buddhism. The truth he tells us is that if it feels too good, it’s probably not Buddhism. But if you want real transformation, if you want painful honesty and deep, uncomfortable change, then read on.
Buddhist practices are techniques we use to tackle our habitual self-cherishing. Each one is designed to attack individual habits until the compulsion to cling to “self ” is entirely eradicated. So although a practice may look Buddhist, if it reinforces self-clinging, it is actually far more dangerous than any overtly non-Buddhist practice.
The aim of far too many teachings these days is to make people “feel good,” and even some Buddhist masters are beginning to sound like New Age apostles. Their talks are entirely devoted to validating the manifestation of ego and endorsing the “rightness” of our feelings, neither of which have anything to do with the teachings we find in the pith instructions. So if you are only concerned about feeling good, you are far better off having a full-body massage or listening to some uplifting or life-affirming music than receiving dharma teachings, which were definitely not designed to cheer you up. On the contrary, the dharma was devised specifically to expose your failings and make you feel awful.
Try reading The Words of My Perfect Teacher. If you find it depressing, if Patrul Rinpoche’s disconcerting truths rattle your worldly self-confidence, be happy. It is a sign that at long last you are beginning to understand something about the dharma. And by the way, to feel depressed is not always a bad thing. It is completely understandable for someone to feel depressed and deflated when their most humiliating failing is exposed. Who wouldn’t feel a bit raw in such a situation? But isn’t it better to be painfully aware of a failing rather than utterly oblivious to it? If a flaw in your character remains hidden, how can you do anything about it? So although pith instructions might temporarily depress you, they will also help uproot your shortcomings by dragging them into the open. This is what is meant by the phrase “dharma penetrating your mind,” or, as the great Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye put it, “the practice of dharma bearing fruit,” rather than the so-called good experiences too many of us hope for, such as good dreams, blissful sensations, ecstasy, clairvoyance, or the enhancement of intuition.
It is such a mistake to assume that practicing dharma will help us calm down and lead an untroubled life; nothing could be further from the truth. Dharma is not a therapy.
Patrul Rinpoche said there is no such thing as a person who has perfected both dharma practice and worldly life, and if we ever meet someone who appears to be good at both, the likelihood is that his or her skills are grounded in worldly values.
It is such a mistake to assume that practicing dharma will help us calm down and lead an untroubled life; nothing could be further from the truth. Dharma is not a therapy. Quite the opposite, in fact; dharma is tailored specifically to turn your life upside down—it’s what you sign up for. So when your life goes pear-shaped, why do you complain? If you practice and your life fails to capsize, it is a sign that what you are doing is not working. This is what distinguishes the dharma from New Age methods involving auras, relationships, communication, well-being, the Inner Child, being one with the universe, and tree hugging. From the point of view of dharma, such interests are the toys of samsaric beings—toys that quickly bore us senseless.
The Heart of Sadness
Kongtrul Rinpoche suggested we pray to the guru, buddhas, and bodhisattvas and ask them to grant their blessings, “So I may give birth to the heart of sadness.” But what is a “heart of sadness”? Imagine one night you have a dream. Although it is a good dream, deep down you know that eventually you will have to wake up and it will be over. In life, too, sooner or later, whatever the state of our relationships, our health, our jobs, and every aspect of our lives, everything, absolutely everything, will change. And the little bell ringing in the back of your head to remind you of this inevitability is what is called the “heart of sadness.” Life, you realize, is a race against time, and you should never put off dharma practice until next year, next month, or tomorrow—because the future may never happen.
This race-against-time kind of attitude is so important, especially when it comes to practice. My own experience has shown me that promising myself I will start to practice next week more or less guarantees that I will never get around to it. And I don’t think I am alone. So once you understand that real dharma practice is not just about formal sitting meditation but a never-ending confrontation with and opposition to pride and ego, as well as a lesson in how to accept change, you will be able to start practicing right away. For example, imagine you are sitting on a beach admiring the sunset. Nothing terrible has happened and you are content, even happy. Then suddenly that little bell starts to ring in your head, reminding you that this could be the last sunset you ever see. You realize that, were you to die, you might not be reborn with the ability to appreciate a sunset, let alone the capacity to understand what a sunset is, and this thought alone helps you focus your mind on practice.
Go Beyond Concept
A sincere wish to practice the dharma is not born of a desire for personal happiness or to be perceived as a “good” person, but neither do we practice because we want to be unhappy or become “bad” people. A genuine aspiration to practice dharma arises from the longing to attain enlightenment.
By and large, human beings tend to prefer to fit into society by following accepted rules of etiquette and being gentle, polite, and respectful. The irony is that this is also how most people imagine a spiritual person should behave. When a so-called dharma practitioner is seen to behave badly, we shake our heads over her audacity at presenting herself as a follower of the Buddha. Yet such judgments are better avoided, because to “fit in” is not what a genuine dharma practitioner strives for. Think of the great mahasiddha Tilopa, for example. He looked so outlandish that if he turned up on your doorstep today, odds are you would refuse to let him in. And you would have a point. He would most probably be almost completely naked; if you were lucky, he might be sporting some kind of G-string; his hair would never have been introduced to shampoo; and protruding from his mouth would quiver the tail of a live fish. What would your moral judgment be of such a being? “Him! A Buddhist? But he’s tormenting that poor creature by eating it alive!” This is how our theistic, moralistic, and judgmental minds work. In fact, they work in a very similar way to those of the world’s more puritanical and destructive religions. Of course, there is nothing necessarily wrong with morality, but the point of spiritual practice, according to the Vajrayana teachings, is to go beyond all our concepts, including those of morality.
To believe that life’s problems will somehow work themselves out, that everything bad is fixable, and that something about samsara has to be worth fighting for, makes it virtually impossible to nurture a genuine, all-consuming desire to practice the dharma.
Right now the majority of us can only afford to be slightly nonconformist, yet we should aspire to be like Tilopa. We should pray that one day we will have the courage to be just as crazy by daring to go beyond the eight worldly dharmas—happiness and suffering, fame and insignificance, praise and blame, gain and loss—and care not one jot about whether or not we are praised or criticized. In today’s world, such an attitude is the ultimate craziness. More than ever, people expect to be happy when they are admired and praised, and unhappy when derided and criticized. So it is unlikely that those who want the world to perceive them as sane will risk flying from the nest of the eight worldly dharmas. Sublime beings, though, couldn’t care less either way, and that is why, from our mundane point of view, they are considered crazy.
Develop Renunciation Mind
If worldly happiness is not the goal of dharma, then what is it that prompts a person to want to practice? Chances are that stepping onto a spiritual path would not even occur to a person who is rich, enjoys their life, and has a strong sense of personal security. Of course all of us, even the rich, experience moments of sadness and hopelessness, and we may even momentarily feel the urge to turn our backs on all this world has to offer. But this is not a genuine experience of renunciation mind, as it has far more to do with weariness and boredom than renunciation; it is often a sign that, like a spoiled child tired of his toys, we are in desperate need of a change.
Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye said that if deep down you continue to believe a tiny corner of samsara could be useful or that it might even offer the ultimate solution to all your worldly problems, it will be extremely difficult to become a genuine spiritual seeker. To believe that life’s problems will somehow work themselves out, that everything bad is fixable, and that something about samsara has to be worth fighting for, makes it virtually impossible to nurture a genuine, all-consuming desire to practice the dharma. The only view that truly works for a dharma practitioner is that there are no solutions to the sufferings of samsara and it cannot be fixed.
It is vital to understand that however positive this worldly life, or even a small part of it, may appear to be, ultimately it will fail because absolutely nothing genuinely works in samsara. This is a very difficult attitude to adopt, but if we can at least accept it on an intellectual level, it will provide us with just the incentive we need to step onto the spiritual path. (Other incentives include making fools of ourselves or becoming entangled in worldly systems by trying to fix them.) The bottom line, though, is that only when a beginner truly appreciates just how hopeless and purposeless samsara really is will a genuine aspiration to follow a spiritual path arise in his or her mind.
As Shakyamuni Buddha, compassionately and with great courage, explained to an autocratic king, there are four inescapable realities that eventually destroy all sentient beings:
- We will all become old and frail.
- It is absolutely certain that everything will constantly change.
- Everything we achieve or accumulate will eventually fall apart and scatter.
- We are all bound to die.
Yet our emotions and habits are so strong that even when the truth is staring us in the face, we are unable to see it.
In addition to recognizing the futility of samsara, the point of dharma practice is that it penetrates our minds and diminishes our affection for our ego and worldly life by pressing us to detach ourselves from the eight worldly dharmas. However beneficial a practice appears to be, however politically correct or exciting, if it does not contradict your habit of grasping at permanence, or looks harmless but insidiously encourages you to forget the truth of impermanence and the illusory nature of phenomena, it will inevitably take you in the opposite direction of dharma.
Develop the Willingness to Face the Truth
Most of us tend to resent being confronted with the truth, and from resentment springs denial. The most obvious example is that we feel annoyed when we are forced to acknowledge the illusory nature of our lives and the reality of death. We also take exception to contemplating it, even though death is an irrefutable universal truth. Our habitual reaction is to pretend it will never happen—which is how we deal with most of the other inconvenient truths we find difficult to stomach.
So if someone is able to hear teachings about emptiness and tolerate them intellectually as well as practically and emotionally, it is an indication that they have a real affinity for the dharma.
Instead of becoming resentful, though, it is important for any- one who sincerely wishes to become a dharma practitioner to develop a willingness and openness to embrace the truth, because the dharma is the truth. The Buddha himself made no bones about it. He never once provided his students with rose-tinted glasses to take the edge off the horror of the truth of impermanence, the agonies that are “emotion,” the illusory nature of our world, and, above all, the vast and profound truth of shunyata, emptiness. None of these truths is easy to understand, or even to aspire to understand, particularly for minds programmed by habit to long for emotional satisfaction and aim for ordinary bliss. So if someone is able to hear teachings about emptiness and tolerate them intellectually as well as practically and emotionally, it is an indication that they have a real affinity for the dharma.
Overcome Poverty Mentality
Many of us feel spiritually impoverished. Kongtrul Rinpoche said this is because we never stop desiring comfort and happiness. Until that kind of poverty mentality is overcome, a large portion of our mind will always be busy trying to secure personal comfort and happiness, making letting go of anything at all extremely difficult. Even those who present themselves as spiritual practitioners will find it impossible to make the superhuman effort necessary.
The problem here is that on a superficial, worldly level, everything spiritual, especially the buddhadharma, appears to be utterly useless and a complete waste of time. We are practical beings who like to build houses so we can be comfortable and happy, and to put our resources into erecting a stupa with no bedroom or toilet or anything functional in it strikes us as being wasteful. But as Kongtrul Rinpoche pointed out, clinging to the merest hint of an idea that worldly values and ideals might somehow be useful makes it extremely hard for anyone to tackle something as apparently futile as spiritual practice. And cutting the ties of the habits that bind us to worldly values, especially when it comes to material wealth, is virtually impossible. “Wealth,” from an authentic dharma perspective, is understood entirely differently. For a dharma practitioner, wealth is not gold, silver, or a healthy bank account; wealth is contentment—the feeling that you have enough and need nothing more.
Liberation from Illusion and Delusion
As the Buddha said in the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra (Diamond Sutra), “Like a star, hallucination, candle, magical illusion, dewdrop, bubble, dream, lightning, or a cloud—know all compounded phenomena to be like this.”
From a Buddhist point of view, each aspect and moment of our lives is an illusion. According to the Buddha, it’s like seeing a black spot in the sky that you are unable to make sense of, then concentrating on it intensely until finally you are able to make out a flock of birds. It is like hearing a perfect echo that sounds exactly like a real person shouting back at you. Life is nothing more than a continuous stream of sensory illusions, from the obvious ones, like fame and power, to those less easy to discern, like death, nosebleeds, and headaches. Tragically, though, most human beings believe in what they see, and so the truth Buddha exposed about the illusory nature of life can be a little hard to swallow.
What happens once we know that everything we see and experience is an illusion? And what is left once those illusions have been liberated? To be liberated from illusion is to dispel all the limitations that false perception brings and entirely transform our attitude. So “liberate” means to be released from the delusion of imagining illusions to be real. But crucially, we have to want to be liberated; we have to want to become enlightened. And it is only once we develop a genuine longing for enlightenment that, almost automatically, we start to learn how not to want to be ambitious in a worldly sense. Such a longing is not easy to generate, but without it, to step aimlessly onto the spiritual path would be utterly pointless.
Millions of people in this world are interested in some version of meditation, or yoga, or one of the many so-called spiritual activities that are now so widely marketed. A closer look at why people engage in these practices reveals an aim that has little to do with liberation from delusion and has everything do to with their desperation to escape busy, unhappy lives, and heartfelt longing for a healthy, stress-free, happy life. All of which are romantic illusions.
On a more profound level, distraction is any of the emotional responses we are sidetracked by—for example, hope for praise and fear of blame, as well as its more subtle manifestations, like being spaced-out, distracted, lost in thought, or worked up.
So where do we find the roots of these illusions? Mainly in our habitual patterns and their related actions. Of course, no one of sound mind imagines any of us would willingly live an illusion. But we are contrary beings, and even though we are convinced we would shun a life built on self-deception, we continue to maintain a strong grip on the habits that are the cause of count- less delusions. Small wonder the great masters of the past have said that although everyone longs to be free from suffering, most of us simply won’t let go of it; although no one wants to suffer, we find it almost impossible not to be attracted to samsara.
Most of us know that aggression is a problem, as are pride and jealousy, but the truth is that all emotions cause problems one way or another and each has a distinctive character. “Passion,” for example, is starkly different from “aggression.” Fundamentally, though, all emotions spring from one basic source, distraction.
What is “distraction”? Clearly, it is not merely the sound of a chainsaw firing up or blaring Bollywood music that interrupts our meditation practice. On a more profound level, distraction is any of the emotional responses we are sidetracked by—for example, hope for praise and fear of blame, as well as its more subtle manifestations, like being spaced-out, distracted, lost in thought, or worked up.
Since our fundamental problem is distraction, its fundamental solution is to be mindful. There are an infinite number of methods for developing mindfulness that all fall into one of two categories: shamatha or vipashyana. The point of shamatha practice is to make mind malleable. But a pliant mind alone will not uproot samsara completely; we also need to see the truth, which is why vipashyana, or insight, practice is so crucial.
Unfortunately, though, mindfulness is difficult, mostly because we lack the enthusiasm to develop it but also because our habit of longing for distraction is both deeply ingrained and extremely tenacious. It is therefore vital for a dharma practitioner to develop renunciation mind and to recognize the defects of samsara, both of which lie at the core of the Buddhist approach to training the mind.
The masters of the past suggest we should constantly remind ourselves about: the imminence of death; the futility of our worldly activities; and the worst news of all, that there is no end to samsara’s sufferings. Just look around you and you will see that the world never ceases to churn out more and more of the same thing, and that the result is unremitting pain and unbearable suffering. It’s no surprise, then, as the great masters have pointed out, that to maintain mindfulness for as long as it takes to drink a cup of tea accumulates more merit than years of practicing generosity, discipline, and asceticism.
Adapted from “Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices,” by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. © 2012 by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. Published with permission of Shambhala Publications.