One may think: “We concede that our decisions are unreliable, but when we follow the decisions of the Buddha, we are infallible.” Then who decided that the Buddha is infallible? If you say, “The great scholars and adepts like Nagarjuna decided that he is infallible,” then who decided that Nagarjuna is infallible? If you say, “The Foremost Lama Tsong khapa decided it,” then who knows that the Foremost Lama is infallible? If you say, “Our kind and peerless lama, the excellent and great so and so decided,” then infallibility, which depends on your excellent lama, is decided by your own mind. In fact, therefore, it is a tiger who vouches for a lion, it is a yak who vouches for a tiger, it is a dog who vouches for a yak, it is a mouse who vouches for a dog, it is an insect who vouches for a mouse. Thus, an insect is made the final voucher for them all. Therefore, when one analyzes in detail the final basis for any decision, apart from coming back to one’s own mind, nothing else whatsoever is perceived.
The practice of meditation consists of working with thought. As thoughts arise, they are the natural display of the mind, and we simply do not follow them. By not following them, we also don’t try to stop them or get rid of them. By not following our thoughts, we find that the thoughts will lessen and we will begin to experience that underlying cognitive clarity without thought.
Taming the mind takes time. Through good and bad moods, through periods of peacefulness and klesha attacks, we train in being present. Day by day, month by month, year by year, we become better able to keep a rule of life, better able to lead the life of a bodhisattva who can hear the cries of the world and extend a hand.
The Buddha gave eighty-four thousand different teachings, all of them designed to subdue ego-clinging. This was the only reason why he set them forth. If they do not act as an antidote for our attachment to self then all practice is in vainas was the case with the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta. He knew as many sutras as an elephant could carry on its back but because he could not shake off his clinging to self he went to hell in his next life.
The extent to which we have been able to overcome our self-attachment will show the degree to which we have used the Dharma properly. So let us try very hard.
Another danger is that Buddhism is becoming synonymous with mindfulness, happiness, and nonviolence. Many people think that’s all there is. When they talk about mindfulness, they immediately think of sitting cross-legged on a cushion with a straight back. This kind of thinking will destroy Buddhism. If we choose to emphasize only one technique, the others will start to rot, and when even one rots, like a bad apple, it will spoil the whole bunch. Longchenpa saw this even in the twelfth century. He said if such degeneration happens, it will be like pouring milk inside a clay pot that hasn’t been put in the kiln. The pot will crumble, and the milk will also spoil. So abundance and variety in the teachings is so important. Otherwise, if the mindfulness movement doesn’t work in a place like America, Americans will throw the baby out with the bathwater and discount all of Buddhism. This would be such a loss.
My training had introduced me to the spacious awareness of my natural mind. We compare this awareness to open skies and oceans — references meant to invoke immeasurable vastness, even though awareness is more immeasurable than skies and oceans combined. Once we learn to recognize the ever-present quality of awareness, to let go of the conditioned and contingent mind and recognize that we are this spacious awareness, then our thoughts and emotions manifest as waves or clouds inseparable from awareness. With recognition, we no longer get carried away by the stories that keep our minds spinning in repetitive cycles, or jumping around like a crazy monkey.
Whenever Buddha spoke he stressed the importance of making a personal investigation of his words and their meaning. Only when we are convinced that the teachings are accurate and applicable to our own lives should we adopt them. If they fail to convince us, they should be put aside. He compared the process of testing the truth of his teachings with that used to determine the purity of gold. Just as we would never, without testing, pay a high price for something purporting to be real gold, we are also responsible for examining Buddha’s teachings for ourselves to see whether they are reasonable and worthwhile.
One of the meditation techniques that is good to use — especially if you are busy — is mindfulness of the body. When you get disturbed it’s often hard to settle down again. Instead of going straight to present-moment awareness, silence, the breath, mettā, or whatever other type of meditation you use, sit down and just become aware of the sensations and feelings in your body. Focusing on the physical feelings is a way of giving ease to those feelings. This is particularly useful if you are tired or sick. And it’s not that hard. To make this sort of practice truly effective, use caring attention. Caring attention is not just being mindful but also looking upon those feelings with gentleness and compassion. You’re not just aware of the sensations, but you’re kind and gentle with them.
In talking about discipline and exertion on the Buddhist path, people tend to have the attitude that everything has to be somber and militant. But exertion, discipline, and openness do not need to come along with such confusion. Genuine discipline is very clean-cut, and at the same time, it is powerful and worth celebrating. Mindfulness is very refreshing each time. Every moment the bubbles of mindfulness begin to pop, there is a new creation of fresh air.
In Tibetan there is a word that points to the root cause of aggression, the root cause also of craving. It points to a familiar experience that is at the root of all conflict, all cruelty, oppression, and greed. This word is shenpa. The usual translation is “attachment,” but this doesn’t adequately express the full meaning. I think of shenpa as “getting hooked.” Another definition, used by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, is the “charge” — the charge behind our thoughts and words and actions, the charge behind “like” and “don’t like.” Here’s an everyday example: Someone criticizes you. She criticizes your work or your appearance or your child. In moments like that, what is it you feel? It has a familiar taste, a familiar smell. Once you begin to notice it, you feel like this experience has been happening forever. That sticky feeling is shenpa. And it comes along with a very seductive urge to do something. Somebody says a harsh word and immediately you can feel a shift. There’s a tightening that rapidly spirals into mentally blaming this person, or wanting revenge or blaming yourself. Then you speak or act. The charge behind the tightening, behind the urge, behind the story line or action is shenpa.
You can actually feel shenpa happening. It’s a sensation that you can easily recognize. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. Someone looks at us in a certain way or we hear a certain song, or walk into a certain room and boom. We’re hooked. It’s a quality of experience that’s not easy to describe but that everyone knows well.
Now, if you catch shenpa early enough, it’s very workable. You can acknowledge that it’s happening and abide with the experience of being triggered, the experience of urge, the experience of wanting to move. It’s like experiencing the yearning to scratch an itch, and generally we find it irresistible. Nevertheless, we can practice patience with that fidgety feeling and hold our seat.