II. The Teachings
Another task, of crucial importance too, will be to sustain the integrity of what is called in Tibetan the ‘Shedrup kyi Tenpa’, the teaching of study and practice. They must always go hand in hand. Many Tibetan teachers are concerned at how individuals are studying in a piecemeal fashion, rather than following a complete path, going through the major Buddhist texts. Studying the Dharma is essential, and yet the goal is not simply learning for its own sake: study must always be married to practice. The Dalai Lama has written: “Buddhism places great importance on inner investigation, on training to develop the mind. From a Buddhist point of view, teaching and studying the Dharma is not merely an academic pursuit. We study and teach the Dharma in order to discipline our unruly minds.”
This tradition has produced the most amazing practising scholars, who have gone deeply into the experience of the practice of the teachings. I think of His Holiness the Dalai Lama again, as a prime example. When it comes to the study and practice of the Dharma, its depth, wisdom and skilful means must not be compromised, otherwise in the future we might end up with a Buddhism which is not based on the teaching of Buddha. And in a society with no spiritual culture or the discernment it provides, people are gullible and so will be unable to determine what is genuine Buddhism, and what is not.
There are two special issues which I believe are of fundamental significance for the future: the need to cultivate a much deeper appreciation of the teachings and what they really offer and represent; and the attention that must be given to how true integration of the teachings takes place in the student’s mind and heart.
I am constantly amazed to see how transforming the teachings can be, and how therapeutic. More and more I have realized to what extent the teachings contain answers that we are often blind to; but when they are fully explored and experienced, and directed to the heart of a problem or delusion, it can have extraordinary effects. I feel that often we are not truly exploring the teachings themselves for what they contain, or letting them speak to the heart of the real difficulties that people, and Dharma practitioners, live with today.
For many years now my whole attention has been drawn towards questions like: How can people inspire and sustain themselves on their spiritual path? In what way can they make the most of their understanding and realization? How can we truly apply the teachings to ourselves and the difficulties we face? In April I spent one month in retreat with a group of students in our retreat centre and community in France. There, we went deeply into the teachings, looking at the basic teachings but from the highest point of view, exploring their meaning together in quiet contemplation and reflection, and I marvelled at the kind of realization and leaps in understanding that, even in so short a span of time, individuals went through. It brought it home to me that, in such a special environment, students can make discoveries about themselves which will stay with them for a long time, casting light into corners of darkness, really changing the way they see themselves, and giving them a new ability to overcome the challenges life throws at them, and the obstacles that arise in their own minds. I found this intensely moving, and I pay homage to their understanding, courage and whole-hearted dedication.
For example, one person said he suddenly began to see through the ploys of ego, and unmask delusion for what it was—masquerading behind the everyday moods and humdrum frustration which were screening him from the Dharma and robbing him of the chance to change. Someone else hit upon a method for skilfully outwitting one of the traps that ego habitually set for her. Several individuals reached a point where they realized and committed themselves, as never before, to taking responsibility for the training of their own minds. One Dharma practitioner of some years standing saw through a habitual notion that had subtly dogged her for years—that happiness existed outside of herself and ‘somewhere else’. She went on to discover in the Dharma a tremendous source of fulfilment, inner contentment and nourishment; she realized that until we can find the happiness and joy of Dharma, it is difficult to renounce samsara fully, and true renunciation is far from being bleak, joyless and cold-hearted.
Different aspects of the teaching—meditation, reflection, love and compassion or visualization—when explored with depth and inspiration, all have their ways of addressing the ‘difficult’ parts of ourselves, helping us to dissolve the masks and personas we hide behind. Some shift which may appear extremely simple can have a momentous effect on a person’s life: the decision simply to be happy, or to leave behind or burn away some story from the past.
In such moments, students can empower themselves to cut through their attachments to samsara and its secret hiding places. They can recognize that the delusion and suffering which has been locked into their hearts and minds for years exist only in their minds, and nowhere else. And once exposed for what it is, delusion no longer has the power to delude.
My point is that the teachings themselves, as we have them now, if applied with skill and perseverance, can help people with the kind of problems we actually face today.
Let’s take one final example: How inspiring and healing it can be for a person who suffers from a lack of love, who sees themselves stuck in a history of pain, or who feels they have never been loved, to discover how to receive the love and blessings of the buddhas, through the teachings themselves. It can hand them a new way of looking at themselves, and teach them that there is an inexhaustible treasure of love and compassion locked inside them, waiting only for their heart to open, in order to be free. Entering the love and compassion of the teachings reveals a well of love within, from which a person can then draw to give to others.
Then again, what is so important for the teachings and practice to have their full impact, yet is often neglected, is integration. For the Dharma to strengthen itself for the future, and for individuals to survive and accomplish something on the spiritual path, we must examine deeply how a student can be helped through the different stages of the path, described by Milarepa’s disciple Gampopa in his famous prayer:
Grant your blessings so that my mind may turn towards the Dharma
Grant your blessings so that Dharma may progress along the path
Grant your blessings so that the path may clarify confusion
Grant your blessings so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.
All too often, people will enter the Dharma, but somehow just wait passively for the teachings to come to them. We need to be more active in engaging with the teachings, applying them to ourselves, and making a conscious effort to keep them alive. We may hear the teachings, but how little we put them into action! That’s why we need to hear them again and again, so that what we should do becomes so clear that it’s almost second nature. Then, through practice, it becomes a natural good habit. Otherwise there’s a huge gulf between what we aspire to and what we are, and our spiritual aspirations leave us behind.
Frequently we resist change and embed ourselves in samsara, letting the truth of the teachings waft over us like a breeze, touching us only superficially. We somehow fend off the truth of the teachings by rationalizing them, reducing them to the ordinary, or ‘spiritualizing’ them, rather than taking them personally.
Our greatest problem, without any doubt, is the way we forget. Forgetting is ignoring, and ignoring is ignorance. One moment we can realize something earth-shattering, and be incredibly inspired, and then in the next, what with distraction, ego and samsara, it’s gone. Many teachers must sometimes feel a little bit like Avalokiteshvara, who, after having saved innumerable beings from the hell-realms, was grief-stricken to look back and see that countless more were pouring in.
So whatever realization or understanding we have, we must let it have its full impact; only that will allow it to bring transformation. Realization is one thing, but following it and living up to it is quite another. By constantly recalling and adding up our moments of realization, even recording them in a book of insights, we will find that they will validate the teachings, and make them more and more powerful. Students need to make their realizations vivid, take care of them and apply the teachings, so they do not fall back into their old habits.
In a way, any realization is a commitment, to the teachings, the teacher and ourselves. There is a responsibility, in fact, on the part of the student towards the teachings: to remember them, to apply them to themselves again and again, and to sustain their clarity. A discipline like this becomes a training of the mind: slowly, obscurations are broken down, and increasingly we see that negative emotions are only as real as we make them. Occupying the mind with the practice and the teaching gradually leaves less place for the emotions to creep in and sweep us away.
I feel very strongly that there is something here that is of great importance when we look into the future of the Buddhadharma in the West.
When there are so many ways in which people can get stuck on the path or distracted, or abandon it altogether, what kind of support can they find? In the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama: "In the East, even if you don’t want to practise, the culture draws you in; in the West if you do want to practise, the culture pulls you back." There is no existing spiritual culture in most parts of the modern world, and everything is geared towards discouraging spiritual practice, rather than encouraging it. A correspondingly vigorous effort is needed to help people not only survive, but accomplish their practice and enhance it.
So in a deep sense, integration is itself the future, because when we immerse ourselves in the teaching and practice, we are safeguarding the Dharma, in ourselves. And out of that will come all kinds of appropriate actions. Thich Nhat Hanh said: “Engaged Buddhism does not only mean to use Buddhism to solve social and political problems. First of all, we have to bring Buddhism into our daily lives.”
III. The Support of the Sangha
A factor of vital and increasing significance for the future is the Sangha and the support that it can give, through real communication, with genuine spiritual friends. Research (like that of Dr. Dean Ornish in his ‘Love and Survival’) has shown how love and emotional support have a direct effect on physical health and the length of someone’s life. The same will hold true for a Sangha in which practitioners are supportive of one another: it will have a deeply positive, healing and protective effect on the individual members, and on the ability of the community to sustain itself. The strength of the Sangha is particularly important in the West, where there is no culture to support Dharma values.
I have seen how often, with pure love and sincere friendship, people can be supported through all kinds of upheavals and challenges.
When we fall prey to misunderstandings and confusion, when emotions flare up and are blown out of all proportion by circumstances, we need help, and to be pointed towards the right teachings. Without any judgement, but with understanding and complete acceptance, a spiritual friend can show and remind someone of the Dharma, always bringing them back, with skill and sensitivity, to the path. In the same way, it can be immensely encouraging and supportive when students share their experience with one another.
The essence of the Buddhadharma is about individual transformation, and the future lies in individuals who embody and carry the Dharma, more than in great institutions. The main question for the future of the teaching in the modern world is how those who are following the teachings can be helped and inspired to find the right inner and outer environment in which fully to practice them, follow them through, and come to realize and embody their heart essence.
Creating environments where people can come to train deeply in the Buddhadharma underlines the place of communities, and their importance for the future of Buddhism in the West: communities of individuals, wherever they may be, in the city or the countryside, practising and learning together over long periods of time.
The importance of real monastic centres is beyond question. But what kind of environment do we create for ordained men and women? If a nourishing environment is created, with real support, then it’s easier for monks and nuns to live as monks and nuns. They need that emotional support, too. Just an institution on its own is sometimes not enough.
As the majority of the students in the West are lay people, so we also need to explore a middle way between monastic life and ordination and ordinary lay practitioners. That’s why, in our community, we have developed what we call a ‘Practising Sangha’: these are students who dedicate themselves to practice, and who usually live in a centre, where they divide their day between a regular schedule of practice, work and receiving teachings.
Another important issue is how to help those who don’t have a Sangha close to where they live. Here, we have to have a long term vision, and, if possible, options of courses of varying levels and duration. We need to find ways whereby in the absence of a nearby Sangha, people can become a friend to themselves, and create a Dharma environment in their own home, with the aid of the teachings, and with materials like audio tapes, videos, books, and manuals. Periodically, they should meet the nearest Sangha community, clarify their practice, choose a Dharma brother or sister with whom they feel a special link and whom they can call, and, from time to time, they should attend a major teaching or retreat. By being creative with different elements such as these, an individual can really be helped to follow the path, and overcome challenges and difficulties. This is what we have been seeking to develop in our communities.
So, openness between the different traditions; maintaining the purity of the lineage; patience, understanding and skilful means when it comes to change; the training of students and teachers; the completeness of study and practice; a deeper appreciation, application and integration of the teachings; the support of the Sangha and the growth of communities and Dharma environments—all of these have their part to play in securing the future of the Buddhadharma.
Buddhism has reached a point, I feel, where, certainly as regards the Tibetan tradition, each lineage should look into its own future, and hold meaningful conferences or councils with leading masters, just as happened in Samyé in Tibet in the eighth century.
Also I cannot agree more that education must be our priority, to provide different kinds of trainings—on the one hand a traditional Buddhist training in scriptural study and practice, but directed towards modern people, and on the other hand trainings for those who will not follow with the same intensity, or aimed at specific sectors of the community or interests. I concur fully with my old friend Bob Thurman on our need to offer the heart of Buddhism to the education system at every level, and to create contemplative universities.
The future of humanity is linked to the accessibility of spiritual teachings like the Buddhadharma. This I think, by any analysis, is clear, and it is the practicality and ingenuity of the West that can make the Dharma more accessible. There is an almost desperate hunger and need, in countries like America, for spiritual vision. I feel that the Buddhadharma can play a great part in answering this need for all kinds of people, and in building a spiritual culture here in the West.
The Dalai Lama has said: “A new way of thinking has become the necessary condition for responsible living and acting. If we maintain obsolete values and beliefs, a fragmented consciousness and a self-centred spirit, we will continue to hold to outdated goals and behaviours.” With its radical outlook on the world, its treasures like its training in compassion and its knowledge of interdependence, the Buddhadharma is handing us a new way of thinking, and more. And—as always—it addresses directly the issues of our time.
Finally, I’d like to pray: for the long life of the teachers, East and West; that the teachings of Buddha continue to thrive here in the West; that all of you progress swiftly along the path to buddhahood; and that all beings be free from suffering and attain the ultimate happiness of enlightenment. Let me also add my appreciation and gratitude to Al Rapaport, for his vision and hard work in imagining and putting together the Buddhism in America conferences.
Reproduced from 'The Future of Buddhism' by Sogyal Rinpoche with kind permission of Rider Books, Ebury Press.