“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.
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings have happiness free of suffering.
May all beings be free of holding some close and others distant, attached to some and adverse to others, may they be impartial to all.
Because bias, bigotry and scapegoating are increasing, not decreasing. Because differences between have and have not are increasing, not decreasing. Because this leads to suffering. Divisive attitude only increases the suffering on the long run.
We cannot change the world, but we can strengthen our values, and we have to do it when the world does not revolve in an ethical direction. If we want to swim against the stream, we have to be strong. It’s easy to divide, saw discontent and blame, it’s easy to thoughtlessly behave like everybody else does, it’s easy to be a follower or to live from a day to day without a goal, but it is much harder to define one’s own ethical goal, to take responsibility on one's own shoulders and to pursue it regardless the circumstances. Yet, on the long run, the easy path is the hardest and the hard one is much more meaningful and joyful.
People are not always right (see any war time). Authorities are not always right (see any abuse of power, including religious). At the end, we alone are responsible for our lives, so we have to strengthen our values and our understanding to lead our lives towards our goals, otherwise we might end where we do not want to end. In Buddhism, this implies study. Knowing dharma well is the antidote against fooling ourselves, against doubts, fears and other causes of suffering, as well as a tool of strengthening and sharpening our mind, determination, compassion, patience, and other virtues that support our path. We have possibility to do so now. The conditions for it will not last forever.
- Ani Wangmo
May 4th, 2020
Sickness, old age and death are known to be a source of suffering, but now something else worries me besides this - rapid increase of disinformation and distrust into all institutions that used to present the pillars of unity, stability and peace, such as science, government (legal state), education and media. Distrust is a sibling of fear, uncertainty and seeking for a scapegoat, justified with overly simplified theories that incite hatred and divide the society. It is a dangerous mindset that can cause a lot of unnecessary suffering.
The opposite of such distrust is not blind faith, which is equally harmful mentality, equally enabling harm, but critical thinking and awareness that wisdom starts with sharpening one's own mind, not by judging others, searching for scapegoats or trying to explain the contradictions of the world by conspiracy theories.
Yes, the world can be a weird place and yes, we do not know many things that take place behind the curtains. Nevertheless, whom does it benefit if we take part in spreading division and distrust, or even in personal lives, does it help our path to live in constant distrust towards everything and everyone? This is suffering on its own, isn't it, and a fertile ground for the seeds of disinformation, which blame whichever other for one's misery.
So what is the alternative? Reason. Having a firm, stable goal based on one's own ethical values. Resilience in proceeding towards one's goal regardless the circumstances. Persistence in ethical goal gives us a firm spine, while reason helps us to pursue what benefits and abandon what is harmful. We cannot change the world, not all at once, but we can strengthen our own virtues, one drop at a time, knowing that each drop can have a ripple effect to the world around us.
Last time I was ruminating about how having a goal in one’s life, especially in relation to what one wants to be as a person, makes a huge difference in one’s sense of purpose, including during the time when our usual social roles and interaction are absent, like at the time of social isolation, voluntary or not.
People are beings of growth, I believe, happiest when they observe the growth of themselves or anything else important to their lives. Nevertheless, merely daydreaming of a goal does is not enough, one needs to actually walk the path to get this deeply satisfying sense of constant improvement. It does not matter how big the steps are, if our environment sees them, or how long it takes to see tangible results. The path can be a source of joy by itself, even in mundane activities where it takes time to see the result, e.g. in mastery of an instrument, in professional sports etc., what even in the most invisible field of all – our own mental maturation and spiritual ripening.*
I’ve been thinking what experiences from the solitary retreats I can take to this time of social isolation. During the past two decades I had over 40 solitary retreats, most of them short, but the principle is the same – total isolation from any interaction from external world, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months. Has it been useful for the present time? Yes, definitely, but not in the way that might seem on the first glance.
Here are my personal experiences. Each retreat was different, but they all shared the goal and the outcome. For me, the surprise was in the outcome.
Our lives usually consist of a whirlpool of samsaric distractions that leave little time for focusing within and developing our capacities. It can be very hard to change this, not so much because of the objective external conditions, but primarily because of our internal decisions. Consequently, we are not used to being alone. When forced to it, our minds can experience confusion, disorientation, changing moods, frustration, anxiety and other forms of discomfort or suffering. How can one maintain stability?
I’ve started these posts when our regular meditation sessions on The Light of Meditation ended due to the coronavirus pandemic while people wanted them more than ever. I’m very reluctant about writing here, because the aim of SICGU is to focus on DHARMA, not to any personality. I hope that others will join or replace me here. Besides this, I am merely a student, I don’t want to be in focus while we have fully qualified teachers who can connect Dharma and everyday life much better than me – and they do during the classes. You are most welcome to join them.
Best wishes to all.
Ani Tenzin Wangmo
I took it from our translation class in SICGU. I found it particularly practical in these times of closer relations among each other, often combined with increased tensions. Welcome to join us, if you are interested. It is beneficial if you dedicate yourself to something virtuous.
It makes a huge difference in how we spend our time during the period of this self-isolation and at the time of crisis in general. This can be a great opportunity to direct our mind to virtue, to strengthen our mind and focus it to our spiritual goal, it is great time to accelerate our spiritual journey and accumulate a lot of merits.
It can be either the time of great growth or the time of anxiety, tensions and abuse. It can lead to a domino effect of good or bad consequences, depending what kind of seeds we are sowing. Many times people are saying: I will study Dharma when i retire or I would like to learn Tibetan but I don't have time. Now is the time, now are conditions for many of us to do what we find meaningful. The opportunity will not last forever, but we will plant seeds of habits during this time.
I would like to invite those who consider themselves the followers of the Buddha to join our classes in SICGU (www.sicgu.org) and give themselves a gift of Dharma. We have amazing teachers and various types of classes, suitable for different needs. I will write more about the classes in the following posts. Welcome to join us.