We are trained to ask a teacher when we don't understand something, we are not trained to find a solution on our own. In dharma centers this might be even more common than in everyday circumstances. The problem is that copy-paste wisdom does not lead to realizations. Mimicking tells us what right answer is, but it does not make us understand it.
I've heard people talk about emptiness – a very popular concept among Buddhists, isn’t it – while not understanding the most basic stepping stones that lead to its understanding, such as continuum (ཉེར་ལེན་) or impermanence (མི་རྟག་པ་). Parroting can look impressive, but what is the point of nice appearance if there is no substance beneath?
Dharma is subtle and difficult to comprehend in its profoundness. For example, gross impermanence is obvious, we can observe it on a daily basis, while subtle impermanence cannot be perceived through senses, it can be comprehended only through reason. Thorough comprehension of dharma requires study, which is not always easy, but if one wants results, one needs to put effort in it, there is no way to avoid it. It pays off on the long run.
Studying is not merely intellectual activity. Bringing clarity to your belief by study is a virtuous mind, as Geshe la says.
It's easy to blame others or to feel good about ourselves because we feel that we are better than others, but moral integrity is not about blame, it is about our own very personal cultivation of our ethical values.
Moral integrity is internal. Other people cannot see our motivation it and we cannot see other's either. I don't see much benefit in advertising one's religious or secular ethics, so you don't see me post things like "I pray for...", or even less "Let's have compassion for..." (this can be a form of using suffering of another to look saintly, without any benefit for them). I believe that it's more honest to keep one's good motivation private. It is good and necessary to discuss ethics, I appreciate it most of the time, but I don't think it is beneficial to use it design one's image, it's better to be honestly human than to use one's spirituality to deceive.
When we deeply consider our ethical values and moral integrity, when we study and discuss ethical issues, it is much less likely to point out at the mote at other person's eye while having a beam in our own. Ethics is not a gossip about wrongdoings of others, it is cultivation of our virtuous mind.
“Truth is something that in time gains momentum and clarity. Those who suppress the truth are the weapons, however, although weapons may be forceful for a short while, their impact does not last very long.”
HH Dalai Lama
Heroes are messengers of hope. They personify the values which guide us, showing us that relying on values leads to good results, sometimes after a period of hardship. They play a cultural role than a single life.
Like many of us, I have been lucky to be growing with stories of heroes. Some of them were from religious books, and to my awe, some of them were living in recent history, or even at right then, when I was listening to the adults talking about them during formal dinners. Almost sacred atmosphere was surrounding these stories. The adults would stop eating to fully focus on the topic, their backs would solemnly straighten, and their faces would open into serene elevation when they discussed the values underlying the heroes’ goals and actions. These stories were more interesting than the fairy tales that I was given to read, they had a sense of witnessing something historic, something much more important than the everyday affairs.
These were the stories of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama, or Lech Walesa. Different people, with one thing in common: far before they were heroes, when they were just single person, standing alone in front of a huge apparatus of injustice and oppression. Yet, they did not remain silent, they did not give up their discomfort, they did not allow emotions to overcome them, but instead sought for the way. Contemplating about the goal and the way, they were able to explain it to others. Some people understood and followed. Very few at the beginning, probably only those with similar personality traits, even if they did not have the vision and clarity of a leader. When more people joined, the change became inevitable and won. Power is not in oppression, money or in social status, on the long run, the real power is in truth.
Buddhist belief system has an advantage, when it comes to heroism or personification of any value that we hold sacred – it teaches that heroes or holy beings are not merely somebody else, nor completely differently of us, these same features are ingrained in our own nature. Once a person believes that they can reach what they aspire to and that they transform their life into the path to their goal, nobody can stop them. People are not born as heroes; they are made through thousands of little decisions to act in a certain way and to refrain from the opposite. We ourselves are the ones who are either empowering or restricting the journey towards our goals through our beliefs and mental attitudes. There is always an opportunity for training.
And it helps if one learns and thinks, if I may add.
“It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act. There are two aspects to action. One is to overcome the distortions and afflictions of your own mind, that is, in terms of calming and eventually dispelling anger. This is action out of compassion. The other is more social, more public. When something needs to be done in the world to rectify the wrongs, if one is really concerned with benefiting others, one needs to be engaged, involved.”
-His Holiness Dalai Lama
Loving compassion is such a wonderful thing, it is beneficial and it can be developed far beyond our present states, yet it is often abused and perverted into its opposite.
One can think how much better one is that anybody else and call it compassion to others. Yet, others are not objects to step on so that we feel better about ourselves, this has nothing to do with compassion. One can weaponize compassion as an insult, saying, “I feel compassion to you”; adding well-wishing words just increases the gap between one’s presented sainthood and the other’s projected negativity. People can be very mean in the name of compassion. In religious communities it is quite common to use big loving words for judging others. One can say: “You have no compassion,” or, “This person is so compassionate,” but we do not really know the minds of others. Compassion is internal. We do not see the motivation of others. We do not know the context from which one’s actions arose. Judging others tells a lot about our own attitude towards them, but little about themselves. When judging others, one acts as if one is a Buddha or Bodhisattva with much higher capacities to see the mind than we, the ordinary beings have at our present stage. What is the point of judging other people’s compassion anyhow? Venting out our tensions by projecting negativity in others? Feeling good about being better than the projected others? Feeding from being perceived as a good person who always talks nicely about others?
Any virtue can be twisted to serve one’s selfish needs. Nice words do not necessarily mean that the person is nice and vice versa. We do not need to advertise our compassion, prayers or any good feature, there is something twisted in this on its own. I strongly believe that our practice should be our private endeavor, not something to advertise or a means to design our religious image on social media. we can be simply human.
At the same time, compassion is a wonderful, wonderful feature to develop. And it’s always at reach. All we need is a person or a situation that annoys us or that we do not like. If we look at our mind at such moment, we can see that our attitude towards the person is not so pristinely pure as we might wish to be. And here it is, our cherished opportunity to develop sincere compassion – genuinely loving attitude towards the person or genuine appreciation to the situation. Do you remember the classical example of compassion about a mother who notices that her only child is in a burning house and rushes there to help her baby. You can feel how much love is in such
compassion. There is no judgmentalness, just sincere heartfelt care towards a fellow being. And this is just the first step. To become a great compassion, we need to develop equanimity to all sentient beings – a stable impartial attitude towards all, without feeling some close, some distant, without attachment to some and aversion to others. Once this is stable and strong, bodhicitta can be developed. Such a beautiful path, isn’t it?
The discrepancy between the beauty of one’s internal development of compassion, hidden from the eyes of others, and the judgmental usage of compassion as a weapon or self-promotion is based on ignorance. Misconceptions and ignorance about the most basic religious terms are quite widespread. It does not matter how long one has practiced, or how many initiations one has or how many famous teachers one knows, without study, misconceptions and ignorance are still there. No matter which topic I contemplate, I always come to this conclusion. One really needs to understand Dharma in order to practice it well.
“If you are not satisfied with just existing, you can change it. There is more in life than that.”
-Geshe Jampa Kunchog
Remaining in a bliss of single-pointed concentration for eons while other beings are suffering is cruel and inhumane. If one would let one’s parent suffer for one single day without doing anything, one would be prosecuted by law. As all beings have been our mothers, we have responsibility towards them.
This though from today’s The Light of Meditation class made me think.
So often Buddhism is presented as a remedy for one’s own alleviation of suffering and nothing more than that. The problem is in “nothing more than that”. Buddhist path starts with firm and strong renunciation of samsara. Cosmetic changes that alleviate immediate suffering without taking in consideration its causes and the very nature of samsara are highly likely to create obstacles to it, possibly for an awfully long time. The conditions that we have now are extremely rare and hard to find, this is not just a phrase. The masters of the past worked hard to find horrifying examples that evoke an urge to renounce everything that binds us to samsara right away. Nevertheless often we do not take them seriously or we avoid contemplating it enough to take action.
Our life follows our mindset, which makes study is so essential. As samsaric beings we are submerged deeply in the swamps of ignorance, surrounded by other ignorant beings, and bound by our own mental habits that have been drawing us in the depths of samsara for infinite lives. It is not easy to change our habits, faith and wishful thinking do not suffice. It is necessary is persistently remove infinite layers of misconceptions, one by one, thus obtaining clear understanding of what is valid and what is not and integrating these distinctions in our mind so that we cannot fall back anymore. In Tibetan Buddhism we talk about learning – contemplating – meditating, where the first two parts, aimed as establishing clear view, are essential and take the longest time.
Do you think that study is reserved only for monks and nuns?
Do you think that lay people do not need it?
The same subjects that ordained people study in monastic universities need to be understood by lay people as well if they want to progress on the path. There is no difference about that. Even the tantra is functional only as much as it has a foundation in sutra – the stronger the foundation, the higher we can build.
Sometimes people talk as if study is only for monks and nuns. This does not do any harm to ordained people, but it presents a huge disservice to the lay community. Do you think that monks and nuns are using a stairway to liberation, while lay people use an elevator?
Do you think that ordained people study because they are especially dumb type of beings, while lay people are too clever to study? Do you think that the Buddha established ordination to cause obstacles?
Monks and nuns have the advantage of dedicating their entire life to dharma, which makes one’s progress on the path significantly easier (also because the vows prevent many distractions of lay life), but the requirements for the path are the same for all beings, without discrimination. Study is useful and necessary for everybody. Lucky those who understand it.
People have different dispositions and abilities. For those of higher capabilities, it would be a serious waste of this fleeting lifetime if they did not use them. For those who do not have such potentials, let us hope that they gain merits and causes which support them. Developing a good heart is the basis, but not the end. Dharma path is more than this. Like His Holiness said in his recent teaching, quoting Aryadeva:
First prevent what is lacking in merit,
Next prevent [ideas of a coarse] self;
Later prevent views of all kinds.
Whoever knows of this is wise.
Do you want to be a toothless Buddhist?
Having no analytical abilities is like having no teeth, joked HH Dalai Lama on yesterday’s teaching – when you come to the hard part, you have to just swallow it. On the other hand, the Sanskrit Nalanda tradition has teeth, he said, it has developed rigorous training in logic and reasoning, which the Dalai Lama always recommends to contemporary Buddhists, emphasizing the importance of study. I love the expression of being toothless, as it implies blind faith or rejection of something that is totally edible and nutritious, simply because one is not equipped for digesting it. But differently to adult teeth which do not grow back, analysis can be trained at any stage of one’s life through appropriate study. We don’t have to be toothless Buddhists if we don’t want to.
His Holiness spoke about the importance of study, logic, reason and དཔྱད་སྒོམ་, analytical or investigative or meditation, like he often does. This time I noticed that དཔྱད་སྒོམ་ is often translated as analysis or analyzing, omitting the term meditation (དཔྱད་: to investigate, to analyze. སྒོམ་ meditation), which makes a disservice to the meaning, opening the door to a very common misconception.. It has suddenly dawned on me: “Aahhh, now I understand why so often westerners talk about opposition between meditation and study, as if they were truly opposite
(འགལ་བ་).” They are not. Investigative meditation IS meditation.
Investigative meditation is imperative to untangle our habitual way of thinking and penetrating beneath the appearance.i “Investigation sets the foundation to see if something is true or not,” as Geshe la Jampa Kunchog says. དཔྱད་སྒོམ་ is like seeing everything better, while its counterpart, འཇྒོག་སྒོམ་, stabilizing or formal meditation, is stabilizing one’s understanding obtained through analysis. ii Not understanding that leads us in trouble.
If only stabilizing meditation is understood as meditation and the investigative meditation is understood as its opposite, how can one possibly transform one’s mind and move forward in one’s practice? If one thinks that study and logic are an obstacle to meditation and realizations, how can one possibly cut through delusions and achieve one’s goal? Without learning how to analyze effectively, one can stabilize one’s present understanding, but how can one go beyond that? This reminds me of giving a tranquilizer to a sick person, who then does not feel the symptoms, while the sickness remains untouched.
Some people are keen to spread the above-mentioned misconceptions and propagate anti-study ideas. Twisting dharma can damage one’s path and sometimes also lead others astray. Sometimes inadvertently. Please keep in mind that very few translators are skilled and confident in both, English language as well as Buddhist philosophical doctrine.
Ideally, one can learn Tibetan language and philosophy as they are taught in monastic universities. If this is not possible, one can still support such endeavor in others, which consequently benefits Buddhist community at large. In any case, we can remain vigilant to not take anything for the face value but to investigate the meaning of the teachings as deeply as we can. It takes effort, but it pays off on the long run. We don’t have to be toothless Buddhists, if we don’t want to.
- Ani Wangmo
i Monlam dictionary definition of དཔྱད་: སེམས་ཀྱི་དཔྱད་པ་ཞྱིབ་མྒོའྱི་སྒོ་ནས་ལུས་ཀྱི་ཕྱི་ནས་ནད་མངྒོན་སུམ་འབྱིན་ པའམ་འཕྲལ་དུ་ཞྱི་བར་བེད་པའྱི་ནད་བཅྒོས་ཐབས་ཤྱིག ནང་གསེས་སུ་དབེ་ན་འཇམ་དཔྱད་དུགས་ལུམས་བྱུག་པ་གསུམ་ དང༌། རྩུབ་དཔྱད་གཏར་བསེག་དབུག་པ་གསུམ། དྲག་པྒོ་འདྲལ་གཅྒོད་འདྲུད་འབྱིན་བཞྱི་བཅས་སྒོ། །
ii Even if you take other possible divisions into account, investigative meditation is essential. In case of śamatha - vipaśyanā (ཞྱི་གནས་ - ལྷག་མཐྒོང་, calm abiding and penetrative or special insight), analytical meditation is a necessary condition to accomplish penetrative insight. Mere settled mind does not overcome any delusion, to get insight beyond deceptive appearances, one needs to genuinely engage in study, one needs to rely on the explanations of a teacher and reflect on what one has learnt, said Kamalaśīla very clearly in his Stages of Meditation (Bhāvanākrama, སྒོམ་རྱིམ་). And if you divide the types of meditation on compassion and wisdom, the latter again implies study (the cause of obtaining wisdom) and accompanying training in logic and reasoning. You cannot avoid it if you take Buddhism seriously.