If we use them as opportunities to work with our mind, all of our mistakes, confusion, and difficulties become an unerring path of awakening. This is the essence, says Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, of the Buddha’s wisdom for difficult times.
From the point of view of our own journey, the practice of dharma is nothing more than the practice of working with our mind. And particularly in challenging times, we need to remember that the path is a mixed bag. On one hand, there is a process of transformation taking place: in some areas, we are indeed overcoming obstacles and experiencing some level of psychological liberation. In other areas, however, we are still struggling, still engaged in negative, unproductive actions, and therefore experiencing the negative results of that. We are not always perfect and our life includes blunders and burdens of various kinds. One of the greatest yogis of our time, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, says, “Erring and erring, we walk the unerring path.”
So, when we realize that we have made some mistakes in this life, or that we are caught up in a fit of emotion or fear, we should not take that to mean that we’re not progressing on the path or being successful in life. We are likely to feel that we’ve failed, but so long as we are working with our mind, applying the dharma in whatever way we can, that is regarded as a success. As long as you make an effort to recognize and work with your emotions, thoughts, and any tendency to commit negative actions, you are doing your work. Whether you fail or succeed in a particular instance, in either case you will actually have been successful. From this perspective, failure is part of what makes up our accomplishments. We usually don’t see this.
Success on the path and in life does not come only with being perfect. You cannot expect that each time a turbulent state of mind arises, the “normal” thing is to immediately realize its true nature. You cannot say it’s not possible at some point, but it is not the “norm” on the path. In the same way, if you expect that each year your income will increase and your business will grow, that your next home will be larger than your last, and that you are building toward a more and more secure and comfortable future, as befits the American Dream, you are mistaking the ideal for what’s normal. That is not only a mistake, it sounds somewhat boring, like a feel-good movie where you know from the beginning exactly what’s going to happen. In actual life, anything can and does happen. That is the truth of impermanence and change, and it is what makes our life such an adventure. Remembering this and taking it to heart allows us to be more pragmatic and courageous at the same time. We need to move away from chasing after an impossible ideal and connect as closely as possible to our life as a personal journey, one that is full of surprises and fresh opportunities to make it meaningful.
We need warrior-like courage to be able to face and accept defeat from time to time, and to transform our suffering and confusion into liberation and awakening. Like champions in boxing or the martial arts, we have to accept some defeats and be willing to learn from them in order to be victorious in the end. Sometimes, when we’re down, it feels like the world sees us as a punching bag, and we are taking hits from all sides. That is when we need to remember that loss, disappointment, sadness, and pain are part of our life, and the lives of everyone. We are no exception. Many others are in worse shape right now, and when we have some sense of guidance, when we have some skill in working with our mind, we are better off than most. Let that thought touch your heart and bring you the resolve to “work out your own liberation,” as the Buddha taught.
You make your own path. It is your journey to take, and how it goes and what it looks like is up to you. Be patient about getting to the fruition, however, and let the result come in its own time. You cannot see a minute-by-minute change in your heart or mind; it takes a little time. On the other hand, don’t think of success as being too far away. Then you might think, “I’ll never reach it, so forget it.”
It is helpful to remember, too, that as much as acute intelligence, insight, or prajna, is critical to our journey, we need to bring our understanding into the world with genuine compassion. It is only through compassion that we can manifest in the world what we know and understand in a way that will benefit others. No matter how sharp your intelligence is, don’t forget to filter it through the heart of compassion before you manifest it in the suffering world. Don’t push your wisdom onto others. It doesn’t work. If you really want to help someone, simply let your compassion blaze.
If you want to get something across to another person, whether it is the wisdom of enlightenment or how to do a job more efficiently, compassion seems to be the gateway to communication. When your heart is lit with compassion and you are beyond self-interest or self-gratification, your message will get through. Your colleague will listen to you. The world will understand you. Your aspiration to benefit others will actually be realized. That’s why compassion is often referred to as “a wish-fulfilling gem”—it can fulfill all your desires. When wisdom and compassion are together, it brings heart to your path and the path to your heart. Therefore, when the road gets rocky and your way uncertain, make your journey personal, not theoretical. Make it genuine, not philosophical. Make it ordinary, not religious. Then you can really embark on the path to enlightenment.