We often bring the dharma into our life only when things come to a painful point—when we are facing a crossroads or experiencing confusion.
Then we go into our library, dust off a book and crack it open. We try to find something that can help us. However, the way to bring dharma into our daily life is to practice and study the dharma daily.
To live in the world, to practice meditation and mix it into our life, we have to have the dharma within us. The process is to reeducate and rewire ourselves so that when we experience something, automatically we see it through dharmic eyes. We acquire these eyes by first using our dharmic ears—incorporating the teachings into our body, speech and mind by becoming deeply familiar with them. Then, when we encounter a situation, we know what to do; the dharmic response comes through naturally.
Engaging with dharma daily isn’t just a mind thing; through the posture of meditation, it is also a body thing. It relates to speech as well. Speech is a way of accessing the truth, an avenue for developing wisdom and virtue. The symbol of the Buddha’s teaching—the wheel of dharma, with one male deer and one female deer—means that the first step in our transformation is to use our ears and listen. Hearing the words of the dharma is meaningful; their meaning resonates with truth. As they enter our ears, they don’t dissipate; they have potency. If we cannot listen, we cannot remember; if we cannot remember, we cannot contemplate or meditate. The teaching must be absorbed somehow.
When we are just beginning to practice, the process of incorporating the dharma is awkward because we’re still not that familiar with it. We look at whatever is happening and think, “Is this cause and effect, like what I heard? Is this suffering? Is it emptiness? Is it selflessness?” In the education system of more traditional spiritual cultures, you spend your early years just memorizing. This is a highly effective method for taking dharma into your day. The teachings you choose to memorize will soak into the mind and make an imprint.
Later, when you are practicing, or even driving down the road, words such as, “May all beings enjoy happiness” will come easily to mind. The words are placed there for a reason. Like seeds in a garden, as you cultivate them, they begin to blossom. Then the structure of the words, and the words themselves, begin to fall away. There is a deep sense of connection, and you know what is being said. Then you begin to fall away, too, and only the dharma remains.
Memorizing a little dharma each day may sound like an unusual thing to do, but we are already practicing memorization. We memorize what’s on television, which movies are playing, what we need to buy at the store, and who said what to whom. Our minds are busy cataloging these lists and scripts. When something triggers a strong emotional reaction, we are usually catapulted into our usual habitual pattern of sticking with aggression instead of peace.
Unless we clarify our understanding regularly, there will always be a struggle between our dharmic training and our nondharmic ways, which are based on belief in a self and on principles of pride. Our view will become conveniently homespun for any particular situation, and our little interpretations will increasingly obscure our vision. As time goes by, our sense of confidence in dharma will diminish.
Through our view, contemplation and activity, every day we are transforming commonly held internal principles into an external social reality. If our mind is going to be thinking about things anyhow, let’s reorient it toward dharma. In the early stages of practice and study, we must make time and effort to put on dharma spectacles and ask, “How would the Buddha deal with it?” The more teachings we can recall from memory, the more confidence and insight we will have, and the more the dharmic principles will become reality.
After a while, snippets we have memorized or qualities we have contemplated will begin to show up at random times—even in the middle of an argument at work—and massage our thinking process. Without effort, they will begin to affect our dreams, and even our daydreams. Scrolling through Facebook posts, we might find ourselves recognizing the reality of impermanence, or actively sending compassion to others. So many of our thoughts and ideas are just space fillers. Contemplating the dharma, we are doing the most useful thing.
No matter how much we practice and study, our view sometimes consists of hindsight. If we’re unsure about our actions, we can look at the outcome of our behavior as a guide. It is often said that the dharma is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good at the end. When we engage in life in a dharmic way, we feel good while we are doing it, and it ends well.
When we engage in a nondharmic way, in the beginning it’s messy; in the middle it doesn’t feel good; and at the end we feel violated, stained and not quite right. While we might have a temporary sense of pride and accomplishment, we are left with a bitter taste. I hear very few people on their deathbed saying, “I’m glad I engaged in life with an attitude of deceit and aggression. It was clever how I manipulated the situation, and I feel very good about that.”
How do we maintain our dharmic ears and eyes? We meditate daily, even for a brief time, first focusing on feeling the breath. Then we choose a theme to contemplate or some words to memorize and focus our mind on that. Positive thoughts are said to be more powerful and go much deeper than negative thoughts, so we have to change the course of our thinking patterns by laying this foundation.
We know what the dharma is; we feel a sense of confidence and a lack of confusion because we are learning how to handle our mind. This will help us even at the time of death and when we’re in the bardo. But for now, we can carry that into our day as a contemplation: How is meditation of benefit?
When we study and practice the dharma daily, we are soaking in the qualities of the Buddha. We feel less obligated to follow our nondharmic ways. Before, we had no choice; we were compulsively driven to act on our thoughts. Now we think, “I could do it, or I could not do it.” We experience a sense of release. Our mind is lighter, more content. We have confidence, so we’re able to appreciate the world more. We don’t need as much. We look radiant and feel healthy because we know that the dharma is actually supporting our life.
The more we absorb the dharma, the more natural it becomes for dharmic thoughts to come forth in any situation. When something comes up, we don’t wander from the view of emptiness and compassion. The dharma becomes a natural energy source, perennially available, with limitless nutrients and flavors—and it always tastes good.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Sakyong Mipham
Editor: Travis May