I had to go to the cash machine to get my rent ready, so I saddled my bike and headed to the mall. It was a beautiful morning, fresh and clear, filled with vivacious bird songs and fields were adorned with perfect lines of abundantly growing crops. Then I smelled soup. Traditional Sunday soup, to be precise. “How could there be a smell of soup in the middle of the fields and it's not even Sunday?” I wondered. I smelled to the left, I smelled to the right and there it was: distinctive smell of freshly made Sunday soup. Still inhaling the soup smell, entertaining myself with pondering how far can a soup smell travel, I found the source: a group of farmers picking up celery, parsley and other tasty ingredients of a nourishing Sunday soup.
“Aha!” I've thought, “This is how we project!“ We find a small fragment of reality, like a physical sense or mental concept, associate it with a larger context that we have experienced before, without even noticing that we've added something to our perception, and then we believe that this combined perception is the reality that we have encountered.
All kinds of similar examples opened in front of my mind like a fan, exposing how often we add our interpretations to the reality, not noticing that something was added or changed. Hearing something new and “repeating” what the person has said with something added or changed; recalling a memory through a colored lens of some other experiences or beliefs; interpreting a statement differently depending who said it; etc. It reminds me of a children game where a person whispers something to another person’s ear, who whispers it to another person etc., which ends in a completely different message after a couple of whispers.
Most of the time we are not precise about what we perceive, and we do not notice how often “vegetables are turned into soup”. Perceiving that something has been added, changed or projected requires long-term training and Tibetan Buddhist debates are incredibly helpful. They have very precise structure making sure that we do not divert from the track and they train us in mental discipline, precision, attention to details, sharpness and flexibility of mind.
This is useful for correct comprehension of subtle topics in Buddhist philosophy. Without study and precise understanding of fundamental concepts, it can easily happen that a familiar term becomes a basis of projections of what it means, not even realizing that its actual meaning has not been understood in accordance to the Buddha’s intent, but has been instead twisted into our personal ideas of reality. Then it becomes clear why study is so often rejected – we already know all the fundamental concepts, don’t we, we just have to meditate on them, and we’ll become Buddhas. According to my experiences, only through study we start to realize that we do not understand the most fundamental terms in their entirety and with laser-sharp precision. This requires training. Only then we have suitable building blocks for effective
contemplation of reality.
Buddhahood is a long-term goal and requires long-term thinking. When temporary benefits override long-term sustainability, this hinders our goal. Hindrances to sustainable Dharma are systemic whenever temporary goals, especially those benefiting mostly one group of people, override striving to empower community at large and on the long run. One can strive for Dharma sustainability on a personal level, which is beneficial, or on systemic level, which is even better, but much harder as it involves challenging the existing structures.
Traditionally Buddhist countries already have structures and systems that preserve the Dharma in their environments, for example monastic universities in Tibetan Buddhism, but this is not the case in the west. So, we can ask ourselves how to contribute to the sustainability of the dharma in our own environment, too.
We can analyze how we are spending our time, money, and energy. Or how do dharma organizations use their resources but let us start with ourselves. Let's say that we save our money for dharma tourism and spend it once per year for traveling to some exotic or nearby destination, spend a couple of days on teaching, leave hundreds of dollars also there, and then return, letting the excitement of the holiday fade away and make us yearn again for a new dharma holiday reset. Whom will it benefit financially? Travel agency, hotel, airplane, train and bus companies, owner of the venue, the organizer, and other companies. Hundreds, often thousands of dollars can be spent to finance primarily samsaric companies. If this money was spent on enabling Buddhism in the west, it would quickly accumulate to more opportunities for more people. Let us say that a single person spends $1000/year for dharma tourism and 100 people – a fraction of the visitors of big dharma festivals – decide to invest in dharma in their country instead. This can quickly evolve in monasteries and nunneries, Buddhist educational institutions, more monks and nuns of various nationalities and flourishing dharma in the west. In numbers: 100 × $1000 × 2 = $200,000 every second year, or even more if this was invested. This is a price of a house in USA.
Second question that one can ask oneself is, how many people does it benefit? In the first scenario, one person receives dharma for a couple of days. In the second scenario, many people receive dharma throughout the whole year, for decades. If the institution is based on personality worship, the time span lasts until the person’s death, but if the focus is on study, like in monastic universities, it does not depend on individual personality and lasts for many generations, as long as people value the study of dharma wisdom.
The third question that one can ask oneself is, how do I spend my energy. Many people, Dharma tourists included, wait for the whole year for the excitement of that single week of holiday when they can escape from everyday life and get a feeling of something different or special or important, whatever they yearn for. This makes the majority of the year bleak in comparison to the weak of elevated feelings excitement, and the worst thing is that the elevated feeling fades away quickly after returning to everyday life, which is to be expected whenever elevated feelings are based on external conditions and emotions. External conditions are transient, and emotions are by nature unstable fleeing events, opposite to reason and mental states based on rational evaluations, which tend to be significantly more sustainable. The first scenario does not sound like a well-used energy for me. The second scenario would be to engage ourselves in study of dharma throughout the whole year. This would imply constant influx of new material for our progress in dharma and train us in sustainable rational, well validated views and decisions for guiding our lives.
Simple questions like, how do I spend my money, time and energy, whom does it benefit, how many people does it benefit and how much does it benefit time-wise can make a big difference in sustainability of dharma and its absence. We can avoid contributing to systemic hindrances that arise from shortsighted, individualistic mindsets. It is remarkably similar to ecology and also here the choice depends on each person individually. Nevertheless, my experience is that rational thinking, wider and long-term perspective lead to more fulfilling life and more happiness, not just for us, but also to those whom our choices benefited.
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 is the right answer, 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.