These days, even though many people realize the limitations of material comfort and are interested in following a spiritual path, few really appreciate the true value of practicing Dharma.
For most, the practice of Dharma, religion, meditation, yoga, or whatever they call it, is still superficial: they simply change what they wear, what they eat, the way they walk and so forth. None of this has anything to do with the practice of Dharma.
Before you start practicing Dharma, you have to investigate deeply why you are doing it. You have to know exactly what problem you’re trying to solve. Adopting a religion or practicing meditation just because your friend is doing it is not a good enough reason.
Changing religions is not like dyeing cloth, like instantly making something white into red. Spiritual life is mental, not physical; it demands a change of mental attitude. If you approach your spiritual practice the way you do material things, you’ll never develop wisdom; it will just be an act.
Before setting out on a long journey, you have to plan your course carefully by studying a map; otherwise, you’ll get lost. Similarly, blindly following any religion is also very dangerous. In fact, mistakes on the spiritual path are much worse than those made in the material world. If you do not understand the nature of the path to liberation and practice incorrectly, you’ll not only get nowhere but will finish up going in the opposite direction.
Therefore, before you start practicing Dharma, you have to know where you are, your present situation, the characteristic nature of your body, speech and mind. Then you can see the necessity for practicing Dharma, the logical reason for doing it; you can see your goal more clearly, with your own experience. If you set out without a clear vision of what you are doing and where you’re trying to go, how can you tell if you’re on the right path? How can you tell if you’ve gone wrong? It’s a mistake to act blindly, thinking, “Well, let me do something and see what happens.” That’s a recipe for disaster.
Buddhism is less interested in what you do than why you do it—your motivation. The mental attitude behind an action is much more important than the action itself. You might appear to outside observers as humble, spiritual and sincere, but if what’s pushing you from within is an impure mind, if you’re acting out of ignorance of the nature of the path, all your so-called spiritual efforts will lead you nowhere and will be a complete waste of time.
There’s a Tibetan story that illustrates this point. Once, a famous yogi called Dromtönpa saw a man circumambulating a stupa, and said to him, “Circumambulating stupas is all well and good, but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced Dharma?” and walked off.
The man was a little puzzled and thought, “Perhaps he means that circumambulating stupas is too simple a practice for me and that I’d be better off studying texts.”
Some time later, Dromtönpa saw him reading holy books very intently and said, “Studying texts is all well and good, but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced Dharma?” and again walked off.
The man was a little more puzzled and thought, “What, again? There must be something wrong with me.” So he asked around, “What kind of practice does the yogi Dromtönpa do?” Then he realized, “He meditates. He must mean I should meditate.”
Some time later, Dromtönpa ran into him again, and asked, “What are you up to these days?” The man said, “I’ve been doing a lot of meditation.”
Then Dromtönpa said to him, “Meditation is all well and good, but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced Dharma?”
Now the man was completely exasperated and snapped, “Practice Dharma! Practice Dharma! What do you mean, ‘Practice Dharma’?”
Then the great yogi Dromtönpa replied, “Turn your mind away from attachment to the worldly life.”
You can circumambulate holy objects, go to churches, monasteries and temples, meditate in some corner doing nothing, but, Dromtönpa was saying, if you don’t change your mental attitude, your old habits of attachment and grasping at objects of the senses, no matter what you do, you won’t find peace of mind; your practices will be ineffective. If you don’t change your mind, no matter how many external changes you make, you’ll never progress along the spiritual path; the causes of agitation will remain within you.
These days, many people are interested in meditation, and, of course, many people benefit from their practice. Nevertheless, if you don’t change the basic agitated nature of your mind and just think, arrogantly, “I’m meditating,” there’ll always be something wrong with your meditation. Don’t think that meditation is always right, no matter how you do it. It’s an individual thing, and whether it benefits you or not depends upon what you understand and the way in which you practice.
However, if besides just knowing the theory, the dry ideas, of your spiritual path, you put what you know into action in your daily life as sincerely as you can, your practice of Dharma, religion, meditation or whatever you want to call it will be fantastically useful; very powerful. If, on the other hand, you have some kind of fixed idea that has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth—“This is religion”—you’ll be running as fast as you can in the opposite direction, your mind still polluted by thoughts of “I am this, I am that.” You must check up. It’s very dangerous.
Therefore, Lord Buddha said that weak-minded people who lack the confidence to face life and turn to religion grasping for a way to make their lives easier are disqualified from becoming monks or nuns. He was very clear about this; he pointed directly at the mind. It’s the same for us: if we join a religious community in order to earn a living, enhance our reputation or find other material benefits, we’re dreaming; it’s completely unrealistic.
This is never the way to satisfaction. If we have that kind of inferior, spiritually primitive mind, we’ll never solve our problems or gain higher realizations. It’s impossible.
Therefore, as I said at the outset, Buddhism isn’t interested in the actions you perform or your external aspect but in your state of mind. It’s your psychological mental attitude that determines whether your actions become the path to inner realization and liberation or the cause of suffering and confusion.
Lord Buddha said:
“Don’t be attached to my philosophy and doctrine. Attachment to any religion is simply another form of mental illness.”
We see people all over Earth fighting each other in the name of religion, waging war, seizing territory and killing each other. All such actions are so totally misconceived. Religion is not land; religion is not property. People are so ignorant. How can any of this help? Religion is supposed to bring inner peace and a better life, but instead, people use it to create only more confusion and anger. None of this has anything to do with any religion, not only Buddhism.
Dharma practice is a method for totally releasing attachment. But be careful.
You may say, “I’m not interested in material development any more; it’s wrong” but then sublimate all your materialistic desires into your religion. Instead of eradicating your deeply rooted attachment, you channel it into something more acceptable. But it’s still the same old trip. You see that possessions don’t bring happiness but then grasp at your religion instead. Then, when somebody says, “Your religion is rubbish,” you freak out.
Another Tibetan story shows the lack of connection between intellectual knowledge and ingrained habit. A monk once asked one of his friends, “What are you up to these days?” and the friend replied, “I’ve been doing a lot of meditation on patience.”
Then the monk said, “Well, big patience meditator, eat shit!”
His friend immediately got upset and retorted angrily, “You eat shit yourself!”
This shows how we are. Meditation on patience is supposed to stop anger, but when the monk tested his friend, the meditator got upset at the slightest provocation. He hadn’t integrated the idea of patience with his mind. Then, what’s the point? It’s like you spend your whole life making warm clothes; more and more clothes. Then one day you’re out, get caught in a blizzard and freeze to death. This kind of thing is common. We’ve all heard of millionaires who die of hunger. So, in that last story, the meditator put all his energy into his practice in order to release anger and attachment, but when confronted with a real life situation, he could not control his mind.
If you really, sincerely practice religion with understanding, you will find complete freedom, and when you encounter problems, you’ll have no trouble at all. This sort of experience shows that you’ve reached your goal; that you have really put your knowledge-wisdom into action.
Therefore, my conclusion is that right mental attitude is much more important than action.
Don’t bring your materialistic way of life to your Dharma practice. It doesn’t work. Before meditating, check and correct your motivation. If you do this, your meditation will become much easier and more worthwhile, and your right action will bring realizations. You don’t need to be hungry for realizations, grasping, “Oh, if I do this, will I get some fantastic realizations?” You don’t need expectation; realizations will come automatically. Once you’ve set your mind on the right path, realizations will come of their own accord.
Nor should you grasp at your faith such that if somebody says, “You’re religion is bad,” you angrily turn upon that person. That is totally unrealistic. The purpose of religion is to free you from the agitated, uncontrolled mind. Therefore, if somebody says your religion is bad, why get angry? You should be trying to let go of that kind of mind as much as you possibly can. When you release the deluded mind, inner peace, realizations, nirvana, God, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha—whatever you want to call it, there are so many names—will automatically be there. It’s a natural thing.
Some people think, “I love religion. It has so many wonderful ideas.” You love the ideas but if you never relate your religion’s teachings to your mind, never put them into action, what’s the point? You’d be better off with fewer ideas. Too many ideas create conflict within your mind and give you a headache.
If all you’re interested in is religious ideas, if you’re all hung up on ideas up there while your life’s going on down here, there’s a big gap between your body, speech and mind down here on Earth and your big ideas up in the sky. Then, because of the gap, the two things start to bother you:
“Oh, now religion’s not so good. My head hurts. I thought religion was fantastic, but now it’s causing me more trouble.”
All you can do is complain. But the problem comes from you. Instead of putting two things together, religion and your life, you’ve created a split.
That’s why Lord Buddha called the dualistic mind negative; it always causes mental disturbance. It makes you fight yourself. The mind that reaches beyond duality becomes the Buddha mind, ultimate wisdom, absolute consciousness, perfect peace, universal consciousness—there are many things that you can call it.
You can see how your dualistic mind functions in your daily life. Whenever you find something you like, you automatically start looking around to see if there’s anything better. There’s always conflict in your mind: “This is nice, but what about that?” The advertising industry is built on exploiting this universal human tendency and the world of material development has grown exponentially because one mind is always competing with another.
From Lama Yeshe’s The Peaceful Stillness of the Silent Mind, a series of lectures given in Australia in 1975. Edited by Nicholas Ribush. Freely available from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.
Like Elephant Buddhadharma on Facebook.
Assist: Lacy Rae Ramunno/Ed: Kate Bartolotta