Pure Dharma, Barefoot Dharma

To practice the dharma purely, we have to walk barefoot before we can run–learning and practicing fundamentals before we go on to more advanced techniques.

By B. Alan Wallace

Photo by Lucas Sankey.

In 1979, I had the privilege of interpreting for His Holiness the Dalai Lama on his visit to Greece. During that stay, we dropped by a small Tibetan Buddhist dharma center, recently founded by the eminent Kagyü lama Kalu Rinpoche. His students’ enthusiasm and great reverence for him compensated for their limited background in Buddhism. But they were troubled. Kalu Rinpoche had encouraged them to complete the standard set of five preliminary practices (ngöndro), including such practices as 100,000 ritual offerings of the mandala, before venturing into more advanced practices. But, as they reported to the Dalai Lama, they didn’t really understand the nature or purpose of these preliminaries, and they were resistant to doing them. What to do?

His Holiness responded that these five practices were preliminary to Vajrayana Buddhism, but they were not preliminary to Buddhist practice as a whole. It was important, he counseled them, first to gain a sound understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Following that, they could develop a sense of renunciation by fathoming the reality of suffering, a spirit of enlightened altruism (bodhichitta) as they pondered the vulnerability of all beings to grief and pain, and finally, insight into the nature of ultimate reality. Developing these aspects of one’s experience, he said, was the foundation for Vajrayana Buddhism, and once that was established, they could proceed to the five preliminary practices and all that follows.

In the twenty-five years since, Tibetan Buddhism has spread widely throughout the world, but these same issues continue to arise. With many lamas representing different orders and lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, and other Buddhist teachers offering instruction in the theories and practices of Theravada Buddhism and various schools of East Asian Buddhism, confusion can easily arise if we try mixing them all together at whim. Students are often cautioned against this, since they are encouraged to maintain the “purity” of the dharma. What exactly does this mean, though? Is it a call for sectarianism, maintaining the purity of one’s own lineage, which mustn’t be polluted by any other defiled teachings? Although one gets this impression sometimes, in other cases the call for purity seems motivated by other concerns. Even the most non-sectarian Buddhist masters encourage their students not to mix up teachings, initiations and practices from different lineages and schools unless they are closely guided by competent teachers. And this kind of close guidance is increasingly hard to come by. Unlike in earlier times in Tibet, when lamas maintained a lineage through ongoing instruction to disciples who were in close proximity, today students rarely spend that much time close to a teacher, who may well be traveling around the world visting centers for only a few days or weeks at a time.

Each of the major schools of Buddhism, and each of the lineages among these schools, has its unique approach that differs in subtle but important ways from other approaches. Given that the dharma is often likened to medicine, the teachings of these lineages might be analogous to specific courses of treatment having their own rationale and efficacy. Each of these may be effective, but only when it is taken purely, without mixing it up with other kinds of medication.

Given that the dharma is often likened to medicine, the teachings of these lineages might be analogous to specific courses of treatment having their own rationale and efficacy.

What, then, is meant by the “purity” of dharma? First of all, the motivation with which we teach and practice dharma is of great importance. If we teach and practice with the altruistic motivation of being of service to those around us, our dharma is pure in one aspect. But it’s possible to mangle the teachings due to our own ignorance and confusion, in which case such dharma is tainted, regardless of our motivation. The roads to many unfavorable destinations are paved with good intentions, so discerning intelligence and wisdom are needed as well as an altruistic motivation.

In addition to the purity of our motivation, it may be meaningful to speak of two types of purity of dharma. Each Buddhist school, order and lineage has its own sequence of practices leading to liberation and enlightenment, and in this regard we may identify a kind of vertical purity. This means learning and practicing each stage of the path in its appropriate sequence, without adding to it or taking anything away from it due to one’s own subjective biases. Each tradition has its own integrity and its own series of practices that develop organically in the lives of its followers. The preservation of that path of spiritual development is often seen as maintaining the purity of dharma.

A second kind of purity has to do with not arbitrarily mixing teachings and practices from different Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions. Adhering conscientiously to one’s own tradition, without importing any incompatible teachings from elsewhere may be regarded as a kind of horizontal purity. The insistence on maintaining this kind of purity doesn’t necessarily imply a sectarian or elitist attitude. It may simply be an acknowledgement of the internal coherence and integrity of one’s own tradition, which is seen as complete and flawless, and therefore not in need of any alteration from outside influences, Buddhist or otherwise.

While there is certainly merit in maintaining both the vertical and the horizontal purity of individual traditions of Buddhism, we must also recall that the dharma—like medicine—must be effective in alleviating mental afflictions and in cultivating wholesome qualities and behavior, and the purity of dharma must reflect these aims. For the past 2500 years, Buddhism has been assimilated into a wide range of different cultures, and in each case it has adapted and taken on unique qualities of its host society. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s becoming “impure” or diluted. It may mean instead that, like a healthy organism, it is successfully adapting to changing environments, maintaining its own integrity and vitality as it effectively serves the surrounding community.

Such assimilation and adaptation of Buddhism is taking place today on an international scale. Given how rapidly this is occurring, there is real danger that the integrity of the Buddha’s teachings may be lost when the teachings are diluted to the level of pop psychology and when teachings from diverse Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions are haphazardly mixed together. On the other hand, if teachers of buddhadharma refuse to adapt to the modern world, there is the danger that Buddhism will soon appear antiquated and irrelevant. This is certainly the perception of many non-Buddhists, as well as some younger-generation Asan Buddhists. The purity of dharma, then, depends on maintaining both its integrity and its effectiveness in the modern world, leading people from suffering and its causes to an experience of greater virtue, genuine happiness, and understanding.

Vajrayana Buddhism is designed for people who have already achieved high levels of spiritual maturation, and if we try to run with these track shoes before we’ve learned to walk barefoot, we may trip and stumble.

When it comes to the purity of individual lineages of advanced stages of Buddhist theory and practice, such as those of Vajrayana Buddhism, there may be little if any need to adapt these teachings. Rather, as some lamas point out, it’s we who should adapt to them! These esoteric practices may be likened to high-tech track shoes, designed to speed us on the way to enlightenment. It’s not too difficult to acquire these shoes, but to be able to use them to advantage and without injury is another matter. The surface trappings of Vajrayana are easily obtained. All we need do is show up at a Vajrayana initiation, participate in the ritual and receive the oral transmissions and teachings. But it’s a lot more difficult to engage in these practices so that they bring about profound and irreversible transformations in our bodies and minds. I believe some people have engaged in such esoteric practices for years on end without ever noticing that their mental afflictions are not subsiding and that they’re not finding any greater peace or contentment. Their feet are not yet ready to fit into these shoes.

Vajrayana Buddhism is designed for people who have already achieved high levels of spiritual maturation, and if we try to run with these track shoes before we’ve learned to walk barefoot, we may trip and stumble. I believe this is why His Holiness the Dalai Lama, together with many of the other lamas I’ve studied with over the past 34 years, so strongly emphasize the fundamental teachings of the Buddha. We need to overcome our mental imbalances first. Let us first achieve exceptional degrees of mental health and well-being. Enlightenment will follow in due course.

To appreciate the depth of mental well-being required, let us consider two of the three basic components of Buddhist practice—focused attention and insight into the nature of reality—leaving ethics aside for the purposes of this discussion.

Focused attention, or samadhi, refers not only to the ability to concentrate, but also to the achievement of extraordinary degrees of mental balance. Three aspects of the Eightfold Noble Path are included in this matrix of practice: single-pointed concentration is complemented by mindfulness and the right kind and degree of effort.

Four kinds of imbalances impede the kind of mental health that is the prerequisite for liberating insight, prajna, the culminating phase of Buddhist practice. The first of these may be called motivational imbalances. All of us desire happiness, but out of ignorance and confusion we often pursue desires that actually undermine our own and others’ happiness. Likewise, while failing to recognize the actual causes of suffering, we sometimes desire things and engage in actions that inadvertently lead to suffering. On the Buddhist path, understanding the Four Noble Truths helps get us properly oriented in our pursuit of happiness and freedom from suffering. We gradually learn to identify the true inner causes of both joy and sorrow, and this motivates us to lead our lives accordingly. In this way, we correct motivational imbalances that lead to unnecessary misery and conflict for ourselves and others.

Secondly, we may identify two kinds of attentional imbalances: laxity, which is a kind of attention deficit, and excitation, which is certainly a form of hyperactivity. These crop up in a habitual state of mind that oscillates between dullness and agitation. In the Buddhist view, virtually all of us are prone to these imbalances, and as long as that’s so, we have a very limited capacity to engage in spiritual practice or any other kind of meaningful endeavor. The cultivation of meditative quiescence (shamatha) is what the doctor orders to overcome these imbalances and to bring the attention to a state of relaxation, stability and vividness. To the extent that this is achieved, the mind is said to be “serviceable,” ready for any task we put to it, most importantly the cultivation of wisdom and compassion.

Thirdly, in cases of emotional imbalances the mind oscillates between excessive craving and hostility, hope and fear, and self-centered elation and depression. Or we may suffer at times from an emotional deficiency (not feeling much of anything) or hyperactivity (overreacting to agreeable and disturbing things and events). Buddhism offers a rich variety of instructions on recognizing emotional afflictions and healing them, and we can also take advantage of its sublime teachings on the cultivation of immeasurable loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Like the teachings on meditative quiescence, there are no significant differences in these teachings on the Four Immeasurables among the various orders of Buddhism. None of them is “purer” than the others.

A fourth kind of mental imbalance that undermines our pursuit of a lasting state of peace and well-being consists of cognitive imbalances. This isn’t a term that’s commonly used in Buddhist texts, but the meaning I’m giving it is entirely traditional.

One kind of cognitive imbalance involves mixing up our conceptual projections with the world that actually presents itself to our senses (both inner and outer). This is rightly called “delusion,” and according to Buddhism, it is the common lot of sentient beings wandering in the cycle of existence. When we succumb to such a cognitive hyperactivity disorder, we perceive and recall things that never happened outside our own imaginations. And trouble starts brewing when we act on the basis of those misperceptions.

When the early followers of the Buddha devoted themselves to such practices, their benefits were evident to others in their society, who would eagerly ask them, “What teaching do you follow?” To these inquiries they would often reply, “Come and see!” Let us follow in their noble footsteps, barefoot and well grounded.

On other occasions, we may be prone to the cognitive deficit disorder of not perceiving things and events that clearly present themselves to our senses. We just weren’t present. This is called “ignorance.” When this sets in, we’ve gone AWOL from reality. While it can be said that all the wisdom teachings of the Buddha address such cognitive disorders, none are more fundamental than his instructions on the Four Applications of Mindfulness. These entail the cultivation of discerning mindfulness with which we inspect the nature of our own and others’ bodies, feelings, mental states and processes, and phenomena at large. The Buddha’s primary teachings on these foundations of mindfulness are found in the Pali canon in the Satipatthana Sutta, for which the fifth-century scholar Buddhaghosa composed the most authoritative commentary. But these practices are not confined to the Theravada Buddhist tradition; they are found also found within the Mahayana. Commentaries on these practices were composed by such Indian masters as Vasubandhu, Asanga and Shantideva, and there are later commentaries by Tibetan scholars and contemplatives.

Understanding the Four Noble Truths and the practices of meditative quiescence, the Four Immeasurables and the Four Applications of Mindfulness are basic to all schools of Buddhism, and no school has a unique claim to the purity of their transmission of these teachings. They are vital for anyone who is concerned with enhancing their sanity and mental balance. With only subtle differences, they are common to Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, and their practical benefits are for all to see. Such practices are firmly grounded in experience. Before we learn to run to enlightenment with the elegant shoes of Vajrayana or other advanced practices within the Buddhist tradition, let’s learn to walk barefoot with these practices that are fundamental to human well-being, regardless of one’s sect or belief system. When the early followers of the Buddha devoted themselves to such practices, their benefits were evident to others in their society, who would eagerly ask them, “What teaching do you follow?” To these inquiries they would often reply, “Come and see!” Let us follow in their noble footsteps, barefoot and well grounded.

B. Alan Wallace

Dynamic lecturer, progressive scholar, and one of the most prolific writers and translators of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, B. Alan Wallace holds a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford University. He is founder and president of the  Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies  and the  Center for Contemplative Research .