Q: There are lots of Buddhist resources available for the beginner or the person with modest experience (and a good income). But one can only read so many books and attend so many retreats. How does one get through that middle-to-later phase if one can’t go live in a monastery or sit with a teacher for several years?
Narayan Liebenson Grady: The process of awakening is ongoing. It doesn’t come about because of a resumè—living in this or that monastery, sitting with this or that teacher. Monasteries and teachers can be extremely helpful. However, to be overly dependent on the conditions of a monastery is to miss the point of the practice. Sitting with a teacher can also be invaluable. However, to be dependent on teachers instead of on your own experience also is to miss the point of the practice.
We can deepen our practice in our daily lives if we understand that we need to keep applying the practice under all conditions, even those that are very difficult. This requires making the full commitment, over and over again, to be aware of whatever situation we are in, and to practice with it.
Perhaps your question is a wake-up call to yourself. How can you enliven your practice? Inquiring in this way doesn’t mean you have to abandon the forms and ways of practice that have benefited you. It may mean you need to practice with a different perspective. The way you relate to the practice is fundamental, because out of wise view arises wise effort.
In essence, our practice is to let go of the torments of the heart. If an activity is basically wholesome, the quality of our hearts matters more than the activity itself. Paying attention to the quality of our hearts means being aware of moments of greed, moments of aversion, and moments of confusion. In being aware, we can begin to let them go.
There are many ways to incorporate practice into your everyday life. One way is to choose an aspect of the dharma to focus on for one week at a time. At the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, we are very fond of assigning mindfulness exercises. These exercises can include awareness of how we speak, mindfulness of reactivity in relationships, and practicing compassion while driving. By taking up a particular aspect of the dharma for a week, a month, or a year at a time, we allow for a deeper investigation to take place.
I also want to comment on what you said about needing to have a good income to be able to practice. I would encourage you to investigate whether this is really true. Most Buddhist centers with which I am familiar offer those with limited finances ways to participate. Even though every center needs funds to keep running, it is essential that all yogis who want to practice are able to do so.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: When I first asked my teacher, “What’s the big deal about Tassajara?” (our newly opened monastery), he said, “At Tassajara we live together, we sit together, we work together, we eat together. Pretty soon everybody can see who you are. You might as well see it your-self.” At that time, I still had children at home and needed to work full-time, so I was only able to visit the monastery during vacations. The rest of the time I threw myself into daily practice at the local Zen center, where I could practice with a teacher and a sangha. My husband and I took turns with sesshin and childcare.
I don’t know if there is a teacher or sangha available to you, but if your karmic circumstances don’t allow you to go off to a monastery, you need to find a way to invite that kind of mirroring from dharma friends so that you have no place to hide from yourself. Keep asking, What idea of self have I dreamed up today? It doesn’t have to be heavy-handed; in fact it can be quite lighthearted. But over time, it becomes very intimate and direct.
Our practice matures by bringing it into all aspects of our daily life. If your ultimate goal is to cultivate a constant awareness of the present moment so that all the actions of body, speech, and mind are in accord with buddha mind, be aware that this is the work of a whole lifetime (or many lifetimes). So we should not be too impatient with ourselves. The practice of kindness and compassion begins right here. However, we do want to keep allowing our kleshas into our awareness so we have the possibility of letting them go, rather than acting them out.
An intimate relationship with a teacher you respect, one who comes to know you well, is especially important. You don’t have to live in a monastery with your teacher, but you do need to have some kind of ongoing relationship, perhaps through letters and phone calls, in between face-to-face visits.
I assume that you have a daily practice. If there is a way for you to practice with others at least some of the time, then do.
If there is no nearby group, could you help provide a practice opportunity for others? Perhaps you could invite your teacher to visit and teach from time to time.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: It is important not to regard your spiritual path as a collection of ideas, information, or experiences. Dharma is like medicine or nutritional food: it must be taken into your system, digested, and absorbed before it will truly benefit. This means that whatever you read or hear, you should reflect upon the meaning and bring it to your meditation practice until you experience the results directly in your life.
Enlightenment requires consistent, joyful effort in learning and reflecting, practicing and experiencing. You read until you achieve enlightenment. You reflect until you achieve enlightenment. You practice meditation until you achieve enlightenment.
Instead of thinking that you have read enough dharma books or been to enough retreats, it is better to examine your own life and say, “I have experienced enough anger!” or, “I have been sad long enough in my life – I’m tired of it!” It is important to clarify what dharma actually means to you. Have you brought the dharma teachings into the life that you are actually living?
You need to ask, who is experiencing this anger or this sadness or this impatience or this restlessness? Make sure that when you ask this question, you look directly and thoroughly into your mind at this precise moment. Dharma practice is intimate practice, which begins and continues right where you are in this very moment.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbess of the san francisco Zen center.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of tibet.
Narayan Liebenson Grady is a guiding teacher at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.