Buddhist Practice

It doesn’t matter where you go or who you meet. All beings have a mind and its basis is the buddha nature. All beings experience suffering and its root cause is the non-recognition of this basis. When we talk about Buddhism we are not talking so much about a religion or philosophy, but a series of teachings that cause beings to recognize their minds and become victorious over their sufferings. The Buddhas have recognized their mind and abide in a peace and equanimity and are able to show the path of awareness to others. Unlike other religions that emphasize a code of behavior merely for this life or to attain heaven after death, the Buddha’s teachings are meant to show a code of behavior that becomes a cause for happiness in this and all future lives.

The teachings of Buddhism make great sense when understood in context, but are easily misunderstood. His first teaching is that our experience is suffering, which is hard for people to accept. But what he was pointing to is our experience is in a constant state of flux. When we have good experiences, they are fleeting and shift into something else. When something is going well, we wish it would never end. But things change and that state of happiness morphs into something else. The same is true of suffering. But the stability we long for eludes us. We can’t count on phenomena, and that is called the suffering of uncertainty. If we reflect on our experience, we can see whatever ease we experience is short lived. There are always concerns in the background for family and health. Even those beings whose experience goes well experience the sufferings of birth, illness, aging, and death. So on a gross level there are these sufferings and on a subtle level there is the uncertainty of change.

Some people stop when they hear this and look for a teaching that is not so depressing and with a more positive outlook. But this teaching was not taught in isolation. Buddhism was taught to transcend suffering. All the Buddhist traditions come down to the single point of alleviating suffering for ourselves and others. What causes suffering is the narrowness of our minds. If we reflect on our experience, we’ll find that we suffer when we are focused on ourselves. To the degree that we focus on ourselves we suffer. But if we expand our viewpoint, we experience happiness. All the books the Dalai Lama wrote have compassion as their basis. I wonder if people understand what he means. Sometimes I think that people see it as pity. It’s this, but it’s also more. It’s also a mind of love. This love is the cause of temporary happiness and, to the degree it is refined, also the cause of permanent happiness. If we have a nebulous and abstract understanding of this state of mind then we won’t comprehend it. But if we look at what makes us good human being, free of any religious dogma, what would you say they are? Whatever these qualities are, they are what make this life worth living. So what are these qualities?

A: Generosity, because it involves sharing.

Yes, when we practice generosity we connect with that basis of mind. The more we practice it, the closer we come to the mind of the Buddha.

A: Loving Kindness. It’s creating positive life force instead of creating negativity.

When we cultivate these minds we perceive these minds in others. On the other hand if we give rise to jealousy and fault finding, it will distort our vision and wherever we look, we will see negativity. When we give rise to loving kindness, we will see positive qualities out there. An enlightened being will see the same world we do, but it will be perceived as buddha qualities because of the completely pure qualities of their minds. So we can practice in a conceptual and nonconceptual way to clear away these negativities. When we practice conceptually there is still a sense of duality, but we practice loving kindness, generosity, and seeing good in others. Then we can practice non-conceptually and merge our minds with the mind of the teacher and the Buddha and when we do this the difference between subject and object dissipates. This is the most immediate way of seeing what enlightenment is like. What would happen if you try to to meditate without thoughts?

A: I’ve not done it. Maybe your blood pressure would come down.

Absolutely. It’s of great benefit to the body and there’s nothing wrong with this, especially in our chaotic society. But does that have any long term benefit?

A: If you can do that you can see through thoughts so they don’t seem so solid.

That’s an important point because our tension comes from our reaction to phenomena, and not to the phenomena themselves. Some people handle difficulties with grace and others fall apart. It’s a difference of the mind of the person in the situation and meditation can bring us to a place we we are not so fixated on phenomena. If you walk out of here and someone sticks a gun in your back, you will see that situation as absolutely solid. The fear comes from the feeling this is real. But if you woke up and realized that it was a dream, all that fear would dissipate. Buddha taught all phenomena are like dreams. If we experience some state of awareness, that will cause a loosening up of our fixations, and a great sense of relaxation. Great bodhisattvas can give up anything because they experience all phenomena as dreamlike. This creates a sense of freedom that allows them to transcend the limitation of this life and body. One of the benefits of meditation is that we can relax and see things as they are, and not fixate on their solidity. So how should we meditate?

A: You can try to increase the space between perception and reaction.

Can you give an example of this?

A: I used to get pissed off when people called me an asshole. But someone did that so many times that I became used to hearing it and it didn’t upset me any more.

If we carry awareness with us, it doesn’t matter what happens to us. Because we can carry that is like a vacation with us. The only rest we really get is when we can relax the mind in a state of freedom from fixation. Even when we sleep we are dreaming. Our experience is just one thought after another. The only way to relax is to relax the mind from within. If we developed the habit of never fixating on anything as real or solid, we could be free of trying to grab what we want or push away what we don’t want. This pair of activities always causes suffering for us. If we could just let go of this on the other side is clear peace and happiness. But our minds are so habituated that one thought comes up after another. It’s good to just sit and watch the thoughts that come up. A young child in a room just experiences it without concepts. If we can develop this ability we can see things without the filters of attachment and aversion. This liberates us from the bondage of our habitual perceptions and we are available to others where they’re at. This is something H.H. the Dalai Lama does. So he can travel the world over, working tirelessly for the benefit of others. And when someone asks a question, he can answer it from the perspective of the person’s needs instead of from the perspective of needing to seem impressive.

The Buddha’s teaching is endless. If you have a scholarly bent, there is no end of the philosophy you can study. But in my tradition it’s considered more valuable to meditate on a single point than grasp a thousand texts merely intellectually. But we don’t emphasize going off to the Himalayas to meditate in a cave. Our lives are the result of cause and effect. Every aspect of our lives is conditioned by what we have done in the past. If we think we have to shave our heads and put on robes, that’s a mistake. We can practice as we are right now. The only thing we need is the knowledge that will cause us to meet our lives with skill and equanimity. Whatever your religious inclinations, I think there is something in Buddhism that you can use. I know when people hear “ism” they think of a religious view. But in Buddhism that’s not the emphasis. As long as we purify our minds and engage in virtue, we are creating the causes for happiness for ourselves. So I would encourage you if you have an interest in Buddhism, this is really a fortunate time. There are many Buddhist teachers these days. Fifty years ago there was nothing like this. We are fortunate to have so many teachers that have the wisdom to be able to show us how to develop these qualities. I would be very happy to answer your questions.

Q: I have trouble when you talk about the illusory nature of family. How do you see this?

A: It is more than mere impermanence, but contemplating impermanence is very useful. If you regularly contemplate that death comes closer with every moment. it will separate you from what is going on around you and the immediacy of phenomena. So we shouldn’t put it down. But it’s a conceptual way of practice. If you can just look starkly at the mind with the mind that’s the best way of deconstructing things as real. If we observe the mind with the mind, thoughts fall away. They may arise, but in the next moment they are liberated, like waves falling back into the ocean. If we cultivate this, things will be seen as fleeting and illusory.

Q: Working in a hospital, I’ve seen that life is short. I saw a little girl who asked for an orange soda. So I went out and got her one. Her face lit up. Then I had to go to another unit and when I got back, they were doing CPR on her and she didn’t make it. So I look on life a lot different than when I was an adolescent.

A: I would say the majority of people in this culture work hard to isolate themselves from the experience of life and death. That experience you have can be a good way to push you forward. You are constantly faced with the question of what makes life worthwhile and that can be a spur to developing a spiritual practice.

Q: What do you mean by merging the mind with the guru?

A: The guru is an emanation of the buddha. If the buddha remained without form there would be no way of connecting with their blessing. So they manifest in human form so we can connect to them. When we make a connection of the guru with devotion, the obscurations of mind can be briefly cut through, so we can experience the nature of our mind. Through the power of our devotion together with the guru’s compassion, we can experience enlightened mind. Simply by relying on the guru with devotion, calling upon the guru, we begin to see the inseparability of the guru’s mind with ours. We will see that the mind of the guru, our minds, and the mind of all sentient beings are the same. Simultaneously with that, there is the experience of compassion for all beings who haven’t seen this. We all share the mind of the Buddhas. It will persist until we achieve enlightenment and merge with them. The closer we get, the more we will perceive all beings as buddha.

Ari Kiev
March 3, 2006
Greg’s Bagel Shop