Palpung Thubten Choling Monastery, my home base, has been hosting a monthly sangha discussion via Zoom during the covid pandemic. The theme for March was “Refreshing Our Practice,” and by enthusiastic request we are continuing that general theme for a couple more months.
In March, we covered a variety of topics, beginning with the importance of consistent daily practice on the cushion or chair, within a time frame we can realistically maintain — 15 minutes a day was recommended as a good place to start. It can be challenging at the beginning to sit down every day to practice, and to stay sitting; but with repetition it gradually becomes a habit, like any other routine we wish to establish in our lives. And we may find that not only does our resistance diminish over time — we may even begin to look forward to this daily opportunity to deepen our understanding of our own mind.
In April, we zeroed in on how to work with our practice when it begins to lose vitality and become rote.
So now we have a compelling reason to want to wake up, AND our first prerequisite is checked off! The first prerequisite, buddha nature, is pretty much all good news: this simple and powerful potential to purify all our obscurations and to fully develop wisdom and compassion is naturally possessed by all beings without exception. If there’s any bad news, it’s temporary and doesn’t apply to everyone: it’s that some beings are much closer to realizing buddha nature than others, per the five degrees or stages described by Gampopa — but if you’re reading this, there’s no bad news for you. You’re almost certainly in the mahayana stage, the best jumping off point for the path.
Next among Gampopa’s six topics on the path: we need a framework or support for realizing our full potential, and this time there’s definitely good news and bad news.
“The three realms of existence are as fleeting as autumn clouds.” ~From The Extensive Sport Sutra, quoted in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa.
A few years ago, when I lived in rural New Hampshire, I was taking a walk on the most gloriously perfect early fall day you can imagine, just feeling on top of the world, la la la la la, when I passed a neighbor’s pig pen. Mr. and Mrs. Pig were friends of mine, and I always stopped to say a few mani’s if they were out and about. But today Mrs. Pig was standing there all alone looking very, very upset. Where is Mr. Pig? As I passed the driveway, why, there was Mr. Pig—laid out on the asphalt, freshly slaughtered and about to be hung up for bacon. Mrs. Pig was next on the list.
Lama Norlha once asked his students, “If you don’t practice now, when will you do it? When you’re a cow grazing in a field?” He always said the best advice he got from his first root lama in Tibet was, “Always remember impermanence.”
A Western teacher I studied Tibetan with back in the 1980s used to say, “We already fell off the building. We’re hurtling toward the ground.”
OK, our time on earth is limited and could end at any moment without warning. But while we’re still here, aka today, how to find the time to practice?
Circa 1980, the first personal computers were behemoths with one font, no graphics, no color, and no mouse, and the most popular game was Pac-Man. An innovative computer game came out based on the 1960s TV show The Prisoner about a renegade British secret agent mysteriously exiled to “the Village,” a relentlessly cheerful island designed to drive a sophisticated Londoner mad. In the computer game, the player typed in words and used the cursor keys to move around in order to solve a series of more and more complex and seemingly illogical puzzles and eventually “escape”—something Number Six, the hero of The Prisoner, never managed to do.
I remember clearly the moment we finally arrived at the solution to the last puzzle: “Unplug the computer.” So simple…yet we never thought of it on our own!
OK, so maybe you need your computer, but what if you just turned it off and meditated for a half hour, or even 15 minutes? Or, don’t turn it off—just walk away and meditate for ten minutes, or five, and come right back.
Or, stay at the computer and just swivel your chair around and let thoughts go for a few minutes. Or, don’t even turn around—just lower your gaze and focus on your breath. Don’t try to change it, just notice it, while gently letting go of any thoughts that arise. You can even look like you’re working!
If you don’t have five minutes, and I’ve been in that situation many times myself, maybe you could follow Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice and take three slow, mindful breaths, relaxing and letting all thoughts go just for that short amount of time.
If you don’t even have time for three breaths, then Mingyur Rinpoche has a suggestion: just rest your mind for ONE SECOND! He says we can do this any time, anywhere. Once while teaching meditation in New York City he stopped and talked to himself for a moment to see if it’s possible to meditate while conversing. He reported to his highly amused audience that yes, it is! In the one-second technique, you just focus for that second on whatever you’re doing; let all thoughts and feelings go, and be present where you are, vividly—feeling tactile sensations, hearing sounds, noticing your breath, or relaxing into the vastness of space.
Many years ago during a teaching at PTC, a student asked the great meditation master Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche how often we should meditate. Without hesitating, Rinpoche replied, “Whenever you realize you’re not meditating, then you should meditate.”
Listen! The banshee is already wailing on the mountainside! There’s no other time than now.
A previous post focused on Lama Norlha Rinpoche’s advice that the secret to happiness in this lifetime is, in all our relationships, to focus on people’s good qualities and kindness rather than on their faults and negative behavior.
But in other teachings, Rinpoche has revealed: it is not the whole secret!
At our meditation study and practice meetings in New Hampshire, we often talked about the Four Thoughts, also known as the Four Reminders. Their full title is the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind, i.e., redirect it from worldly to spiritual concerns.
Lama Norlha Rinpoche has always placed a great deal of emphasis on really getting to know these thoughts; he says it is like building the foundation of your house. If you haven’t really internalized these thoughts, your Dharma practice will never be truly stable. (Just before we entered the three-year retreat, he gave a teaching on these same four thoughts.) Whenever you find yourself wavering about whether to do your meditation or go make some popcorn and put in a dvd, you can always come back to the Four Thoughts to remind yourself why the dvd isn’t going to help you when things go wrong.
Informally expressed, the Four Thoughts are:
The Precious Human Existence: We need to appreciate what a rare opportunity we have in this life; we have everything we need in order to free ourselves from the otherwise endless cycle of confusion and suffering. We are not gravely impaired or imprisoned in a situation that leaves us no leisure; and we have access to the Buddha’s teachings and to living teachers who can help us apply them. Not everyone has this situation, and we might not have it ourselves the next time around; we need to put it to work for us.
Impermanence and Death: Darn, there’s that D-word again. Why do Buddhists have to be so morbid? Because it’s the truth: we don’t know how long this opportunity is going to last. Even if we don’t die tomorrow, something could happen that could prevent us from practicing. It could happen any minute (wait, is that the phone?)—so we have to make use of our time right now!
Karma, Cause and Result: This one is very complicated; even if I understood it, I wouldn’t try to explain it! But Jamgon Kongtrul, the great nineteenth-century Kagyu teacher, says in The Lamp of the Definitive Meaning (aka, The Torch of Certainty, translated by Judith Hanson) that anyone can understand the fundamental underlying law of karma: virtuous-positive-helpful actions lead to future happiness, and unvirtuous-negative-harmful actions lead to future suffering. Part of Dharma practice is to conduct ourselves in the world in such a way that we don’t create more negative conditions for ourselves or others. This isn’t a moralistic edict, it’s completely practical: we are looking out for our own future, which may kick in to some extent in this lifetime, but really takes hold when we die and as we move on to our next life. As Lama Norlha Rinpoche often advises: don’t set yourself up for regrets on your deathbed, because there’s nothing you can do about them then.
The Disadvantages of Samsara: Samsara is the Sanskrit word (Tibetan kor.wa) for the endless cycle of suffering that goes round and round from lifetime to lifetime. The Buddha taught that it’s all suffering, every atom of it. Even what feels like fun is suffering in disguise: if it doesn’t make you fat or aggravate your asthma, at best it has to end; and if you look at anything in life closely enough, you see that it came to you via a trail of others’ pain and destruction, especially if you believe, as Buddhists do, that even tiny animals count. (How many insects died for your bowl of brown rice or strawberries?)
For a more classical presentation and more detail about the Four Thoughts, some good books are The Torch of Certainty by Jamgon Kongtrul, The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche, and two books by Kalu Rinpoche: The Writings of Kalu Rinpoche (his first book, available from PTC Monastery) and Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism.