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.
“Words have a profound effect, shaping how we look at things,” says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. “The words of the dharma have power in a positive sense; as they begin to penetrate us, we start to think, ‘Maybe my mind actually is tameable.'”
One of the key things that many of us in the West are trying to do is to understand what the Buddha taught. Obviously, we’re not talking here about academic study of Buddhism. We’re talking about really contemplating the teachings and incorporating them into who we are. Buddhism is not some therapeutic treatment for the ills of an unsatisfactory life. What the Buddha taught is profound truth about the very nature of reality—from the truth of how one little thought arises all the way to complete enlightenment, and everything in between.
If the Buddhist teachings are to work on us, if meditation is to work on us, we have to be willing to change. We have to ask ourselves, “Is this something I actually want to incorporate into me? Is this something I want to change me?” If it is, then we have to begin by thinking about—really thinking about—the teachings. It’s not just, “Do I understand what bodhichitta is?” It’s, “Am I willing to have bodhichitta planted in me?”
When we first begin to study the dharma, we don’t know what’s going on. There are so many lists, so many terminologies. We need to get our bearings. We have to go through a process of conceptualizing the dharma; that is really important. That is the only way to get to the directness.
Words have a profound effect. When we hear the dharma for the first time, it is completely new and different. The second time we hear it, there is a little less apprehension and confusion. It strikes us a little more deeply. The third time, it begins to penetrate us. So it is important that we continuously go over the teachings.
When we are able to let the dharma soak in, it becomes a part of us. The words begin to shape how you look at things.
When we are studying or doing contemplative practice, it is important not just to learn the dharma by rote but to embed it in ourselves. We should use the words of the dharma to slowly but surely change our mental and heart approach so it is aligned with what we are trying to accomplish. We do not study the dharma just to entertain ourselves or to learn something new, although in the beginning we do learn many new things. What we are trying to do is to imprint the words and their meaning in our mind and body.
When we are able to let the dharma soak in, it becomes a part of us. The words begin to shape how you look at things. This is no different than our experience in the conventional world. For instance, somebody tells us that we have a problem, that we are lazy, stupid, mean or impatient. Those are just words, but if we watch our mind, we see that those words stay with us. So even in normal conversation, words have tremendous power.
The words of the dharma have power in a positive sense. As the dharma begins to penetrate us, we start to think, “Maybe my mind actually is tameable. Maybe I do have bodhichitta. Maybe I am intrinsically buddha.” The words of the dharma become the air we breathe. They become like rain. We hear the dharma all the time and it begins to penetrate us.
We have to start with thinking. Thinking, in this case, is good, not bad. Thinking during meditation is not good, but thinking about the dharma is good. You can go to town on thinking about the dharma. You can think about it in all kinds of ways, really get into it, bring out whatever doubts and inspirations you have.
What we are discussing is important; I am trying to communicate the heart level of study. This is about the way we live our lives—we are not just trying to figure out which way is up. The question isn’t, “Am I able to understand the dharma?” but, “Am I able to make it part of me?”
Confidence comes from really understanding and working with the teachings. It all comes down to the view: the more we know about the view, the more we understand what we are doing and why, the more confidence we have. The dharma is very, very precise in how and what it is trying to communicate. The first step is hearing the words; then we learn the meaning; then we do the meditation. The words themselves provide direction; if we don’t know the direction, we can’t get where we’re going.
When you start to study the dharma, it is difficult at first. There are certain things you have to work to get your mind around. But once you get into the flow, it is very soothing. When you begin to really understand the dharma, it penetrates you, especially the higher understandings of the Middle Way and the nature of mind.
The experience of studying that kind of material is so sweet, it is like honey. You cannot get enough of it. It is addictive. It is like going to a wonderful symphony, and every sound is perfect. There is a sense that you are being effortlessly led along. The composer, the music, the people playing each instrument—all are in complete unity. There is that kind of unity in the dharma. Each word of the dharma is a bodhisattva who is communicating to you.