The Point Is to Practice
It is good to think about the lives of mahasiddhas such as Naropa and Lama Je Tsongkhapa so that you know how you have to practice. Even after you have learned lam-rim, there are still times when you are unclear about what you have to do. When you look at the lifestyles of the mahasiddhas, many things become clear.
We can see from their biographies that intellectual knowledge of Dharma alone is not enough—we have to practice. There are many stories of learned Dharma scholars having to ask for guidance from people who have not studied any of the vast treatises but who have really tasted the few teachings they have
received. I remember Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, the Junior Tutor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, saying in his teachings that when it comes to practice, many intellectuals have to go to beggars on the street to ask for advice. Even though these scholars may have intellectually learned the entire sutra and tantra teachings and may even teach them to many students, they are still empty when it comes to practice.
Rinpoche was saying that this is happening in the Tibetan community, but it is good for us, too, to keep his words in mind. Can you imagine spending twenty or thirty years studying the Dharma and still not improving within yourself, still not even knowing how to begin to practice? You might think that this is not possible, yet it can happen.
The Six Yogas of Naropa are not something philosophical. You have to act, so that some inner transformation takes place. The teachings must become real for you. Take karma, for instance. When we talk about karma, we intellectualize so much. We need to come down to earth. Karma is not something complicated or
There are many monks leading ascetic lives in Dharamsala in India, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama lives. Even though they are perhaps not very learned, they spend many years meditating and doing retreat in small huts on the mountainsides. On the other hand, there are other very learned monks who do not want to live ascetic lives. Those living in retreat on the mountain really try to taste the Dharma, and I think they succeed. They taste the chocolate, while the famous scholars miss out. In the end, it doesn’t matter who you are; if you want to taste something, you have to go to the taste-place.
It is exactly the same in the West. Many people easily gain an incredible intellectual understanding of Buddhism, but it is a dry understanding that does not fertilize the heart. There are some Western professors, for example, who have studied Buddhism for years. They have high degrees in Buddhist studies
and have published books on the sutras and tantras. Yet many of them admit that they are not even Buddhists, which means they haven’t actualized what they write about. They can read Lama Je Tsongkhapa’s texts and translate them using incredible words, but for them it remains mere theory. I find this shocking.
On the other hand, some people have heard just a few lam-rim teachings, such as the workings of the negative mind, but they begin to look inside themselves and to meditate. The teachings gradually become part of them. The mere intellectuals, however, think that the negative mind is somewhere else—up on top of Mount Everest, perhaps. They don’t care about the negative mind because they think that it doesn’t refer to them.
Many of my students who are interested in learning more about Dharma ask me whether they should learn Tibetan. I say to them, “If you want to learn Tibetan, learn it. If you don’t want to learn it, don’t. There is plenty of information available in English and other languages.” I have my reasons for answering them in this way. I’m sympathetic to Western students, and I’ve been watching them for many years. Many of my students have learned Tibetan, but
after they have learned it, some of them seem to practice Dharma less. This doesn’t make sense to me. Tibetan is not a holy language. In every culture you learn a language—it’s part of samsara. In learning Tibetan, you learn a Tibetan samsaric trip. This is why I am not very interested in my students learning Tibetan. The important point is to taste the chocolate. No matter how small a piece you get, as long as you taste it, you will be satisfied.
I remember something His Holiness the Dalai Lama said during a commentary on the Six Yogas of Naropa. He described his visit to some Kagyu monasteries, where he saw many monks who were not especially learned but who were practicing very seriously in retreat, leading ascetic lives and undergoing many hardships. These monks studied a small part of a commentary, then immediately
put great energy and effort into meditating on it. His Holiness said that, on the other hand, some Gelugpa monks are very learned but do not put much energy into their practice. His Holiness expressed the wish for there to be a balance between those who have not learned much yet put incredible energy into practicing meditation and those who are incredibly learned yet do very little meditation practice. I am sure His Holiness was not joking, nor was he being sectarian. He was impressed by the Kagyu retreatants.
My point is that as soon as you clearly understand a subject, you should hold it in your heart and practice it. You will then taste the teaching. For example, once someone has shown you exactly how to make pizza—how to combine the tomatoes, the mozzarella cheese, the herbs, and so forth—that is enough
for you to make pizza and to eat it. However, Western people are easily confused. If someone comes along and says to you, “Oh, you don’t know much! You can’t make pizza because you don’t know how to make curry,” you will think that you can’t cook at all.
Of course, I am not saying that you should not learn Dharma well; but take whatever you learn into your heart and integrate it. In fact, according to the great Sakya Pandita, someone who tries to meditate without first receiving the teachings is like a person without arms or legs trying to climb up a steep
mountain. This means that if you don’t first get the information about how to make a pizza, trying to make a pizza will be a disaster. But it is nonsense to say that people who don’t know how to make a curry cannot make a pizza. Many people make this same mistake with Dharma.
There are other misconceptions. For example, Lama Je Tsongkhapa has said that first we should study extensively, next we should understand how to practice the teachings, and then we should practice day and night. We might interpret the words “first this, second this, third this” to mean that we have to study for thirty or forty years before we even start to meditate. Such misconceptions do exist.
Suppose I ask one of my students how long he has studied Buddhadharma, and he answers, “Ten years.” I then say to him, “Ten years? Ten years’ study means nothing. In order to be able to practice you have to study at least thirty or forty years, because first you have to study for a long time, then you have to reflect on everything, and finally you have to practice day and night. Lama Je Tsongkhapa said so.” It is easy to be misled in this way.
Understanding the three negativities of body, the four of speech, and the three of mind is enough for you to learn to avoid them.1 We don’t need to learn the entire sutra and tantra teachings in order to practice the opposite of these, the ten virtuous actions. It is essential that we bring the correct understanding of Buddhism into the Western world, not one bound by cultural chains. When everything is clean-clear in your own mind, nobody can create obstacles for you.
When Lama Tsongkhapa was still a teenager, he did a Manjushri retreat. Relatively speaking, he had not yet studied much, but he went into retreat and had many meditation experiences. Lama Tsongkhapa’s way of practicing unified listening, analytical checking, and meditation, and it also unified sutra and tantra.
It is important to have a firm practice. Students who have listened to Dharma teachings for many years sometimes say, “I am confused! I don’t know where to start. I’ve received so many teachings from so many lamas, but I still don’t know who my real teacher is or what meditations to do.” Even though these students have studied many subjects and have learned a hundred meditation techniques, they are still lost. This shows that something is wrong.
The beauty of Tibetan Buddhism is that it has a clear structure from beginning to end. Perhaps you find all these outlines boring, but Tibetan Buddhism is alive today because of its clear structure. All four traditions have a clean-clear approach, and this should be much appreciated. If ten steps are involved in going from here to there but some of the information is missing, you cannot go all the way. If you have a clear map, however, you won’t get lost.
Since we are gaining a Buddhist education, we should be aware of what we need and what we lack. To some extent, you do know what you need. When you are hungry, you recognize the fact and search for food. When you are thirsty, you know that drinking something will solve your problem. In the same way, when you feel any kind of dissatisfaction, simply try to solve the problem. Deal with the gross problems first, then gradually the more subtle ones. Be practical. Use your inner wisdom—and just act!
Try to be reasonable in the way you grow, and don’t ever think it is too late. It is never too late. Even if you are going to die tomorrow, keep yourself straight and clear and be a happy human being today. If you keep your situation happy day by day, you will eventually reach the greatest happiness of enlightenment.
Remember, we are all responsible for our own lives. Don’t think that this Tibetan monk will give you enlightenment or make you powerful. It is not like that. Just think, “At this time in my life I have come into contact with this monk, and I will judge him realistically. I will not blindly accept what he says but will check up on whether it is right or wrong and debate with him.”
Anyone who claims to be a Buddhist knows that the principal concern of Buddhism is the mind. The mind is the nucleus of samsara and nirvana. Every experience we have in our lives manifests from our mind. Because you interpret your life and your world through your mental attitude, it is important to have the right motivation. Wrong motivation brings pain, disappointment, and extremes in life. Think in this way, “During the rest of my life, it is my
responsibility to grow in mindfulness and happiness. Each day I will expand the loving kindness I already have. When I wake up each morning, I will open my wisdom-eye and see more and more deeply into the inner universal reality. I will try to be as mindful as possible. I will take responsibility for my life and dedicate it to others by growing strong in loving kindness and wisdom. I will serve others as much as possible.” Make the determination that this will be your way of life.