Buddhadharma in Everyday Life.
What makes the Mahayana “maha,” or great, is that it is both profound and vast.
Its profundity comes from the prajna (insight) that undermines the tendency to take everything as seriously real—as permanent, solid, and unchanging. By exposing the notions of “I” and “mine” to the light of prajna, we find neither a self nor any phenomena. Instead we are left with selflessness and the essence-lessness of ever-changing phenomena. This discovery is liberating because, if we are not imprisoned in fictional identities or images, it is possible to extend genuine compassion to everyone. And that compassion is what makes the Mahayana vast.
There are three traditional analogies for those on this profound and vast Mahayana path: there is the bodhisattva shepherd who guides the flock to enlightenment by putting himself or herself last; there is the ferryman who arrives with the passengers at the other shore at the same time; and then there is the king who decides to enlighten himself first. These are all valid stages in the bodhisattva path.
In the beginning it’s good to be like the king, to work on ourself first, to learn to meditate and practice tonglen (giving and taking) in order to erode our habit of clinging to “me” and to “mine.”
An additional skill at this beginning stage is analytical meditation, which sheds even more light and can be an insightful boost to practice.
Thus the slogan:
Liberate yourself by examining and analyzing.
This is an invitation to look at the mind. Just look. Do you find anything? Although we may find neither a “mind” nor a “self,” there is this clear, ready cognizance—the ability or capacity to know. In other words, it is not a blank; the looking is bright. But because there is no object to know in the moment of looking inward, there is also no subject. There is just this bright, non-dual gap that interrupts any emotionality, thinking, or fixation—at least for that moment.
That experiential moment is a basis for faith that practice works. The not-finding aspect is the momentary experience of emptiness or shunyata. Sometimes those words scare people. If so replace them with the word openness. These are all just words trying inadequately to point to a powerful and undeniable, if brief experience. The bright energy of looking reveals that the empty or open experience is in fact not blank, but is charged with possibilities.
It is an awake moment, not a nihilistic one.
The erosion, even momentary, of self-fixation enables compassion to flow. The less we cling to self and our agendas, the more we are able to be like the ferryman—generous, patient, motivated to help others get to the shore of liberation. Likewise, the repeated experience of profound emptiness motivates us to compassionate activity, which occurs spontaneously, not laboriously.
When the habit of ego-cherishing re-arises, we turn again and again to the daily practice of meditation and tonglen, reinforced by these moments of repeated looking and investigating. Through examining and not finding anything, we begin to see that “self” is no more than a fabricated, fictional character like Scrooge. Seeing this, we feel liberated from the old story lines and self-centered dramas and can be open to the people in our world.
By stabilizing this realization of selflessness, we fully enter the Mahayana. We are no longer merely aspiring to do so. This is the stage of the shepherd bodhisattva, who vows not to attain enlightenment until everyone has been liberated. This is the full fruition of tonglen, realizing that there is no separation between seeming self and seeming “other.” (And of course, this complete and genuine selflessness is enlightenment!)
There is a wonderful story that illustrates this in Words of My Perfect Teacher. Evidently Patrul Rinpoche encountered a mother struggling to carry her child up and down the rocky mountain paths on her way to a monastery to hear a great teacher. Patrul Rinpoche, who often looked dusty and rumpled, came upon this woman and immediately offered to carry her child on his shoulders, telling the grateful mother that he was headed the same way.
When they arrived at the monastery, the child scampered in and the mother quietly took her seat beside him in the back—until, to her amazement, Patrul Rinpoche walked to the front and took his seat on the teaching throne and began to teach!