Here is Where the Journey Starts
the Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche
an article from the Shambhala Sun, September
The Venerable Traleg Rinpoche elucidates three principles that make
spiritual practice genuine, but they all come down to the same thing: you have
to start with who you are now.
The practice of Buddhism must always begin
with ourselves - with gaining some kind of understanding of where we are and what
sort of being s we are. Transcendental concepts like buddhahood and nirvana may
well represent our ultimate goal, but we will never become a buddha by ignoring
our immediate human condition.
If we think of buddhahood and nirvana as realms
that are far removed from our human condition, we will set up barriers between
who we are and who we want to become. This kind of thinking only defers what we
want to realize to some time in the future, because conceiving these realms of
transcendence as having nothing in common with our everyday experience renders
them unreachable. Thus they remain purely abstract concepts that have no real
meaning to us as human beings.
Here are three fundamental points which ground
our practice in the reality of being human and that are needed to transform ourselves
on the spiritual path.
Dealing with Ourselves as We Are
As individuals we
have many different needs, and our spiritual need is one of the most important.
It is only human beings who yearn to feel connected to something that is sacred
and spiritual. If we are to have any hope of meeting that longing, we must first
come in touch with ourselves.
According to the Buddhist tradition, we are on
a journey whether we like it or not, because we are always in a state of transition.
Sentient beings are referred to as drowa in Tibetan, which means 'migrating creatures'.
This is because we can never be in a particular place without moving physically,
psychologically or spiritually. Whether we are thinking or sensing or experiencing
emotions, everything is constantly being propelled or drawn forward. Emotions
are "emotions in motion", because even a state of agitation is a form
However, if we are not in a state of transition, we could not
talk about transformation. Our life would be a closed book. But according to the
Buddhist teachings, our lives are not closed books because of this constant forward
movement. If we feel that we are stuck, that is only our misunderstanding of what
is really going on, for something is always happening even if we do not notice
This is why Buddhist meditation is so important, because Buddhist meditation
is designed for us to take notice of things. When we do not take notice, we feel
that we are stuck. However, we are never really stuck because even the feeling
of being stuck is a form of movement, ironically enough. In that sense, we are
all pilgrims; we are al pilgrims on the move.
There is a story that illustrates
this point very well. A meditator goes to a remote retreat hut to visit a meditation
master who is renowned for his knowledge. The meditator hopes that this master
has secrets and sacred texts that might be revealed to him. The master invites
the meditator into his inner chamber and they sit down together. The meditator
looks around to see where all the books are, but he cannot find any. He asks the
master, "Where are your holy texts?" The master replies, "I haven't
got any." Then the master says, "But what about your holy texts?"
The meditator responds, "I did not bring any, I am just a visitor here."
To which the master says, " Me too".
We are all just visitors here.
We are moving along in terms of time: we get older, we get sick, we get well,
we get sick again. We are always moving in that way through life. We know that,
but we do not know it, because we do not pay enough attention to this. All the
same, we are on a journey whether we know it or not. Being a traveller through
life, we encounter many different things and those things shape our lives and
determine what we will become.
As human beings we also have many contradictions.
We have an enormous capacity for kindness and love. However, we are also equally
capable of cruelty, violence and many other things besides. We can be very understanding
of other peoples' faults and then suddenly turn into an unforgiving, raging animal.
We can be very courageous when we come across adverse circumstances and situations
in life, while at the same time we can be cowardly. Sometimes we can be courageous
in one instance and completely paralysed by fear in the next. We can be very confident
and display an enormous amount of self-esteem in certain situations, and then
something triggers our self-doubt and we begin to feel inadequate, with our confidence
There is a whole litany of character traits like this in all
of us. These are only examples, to highlight the necessity of paying attention
to what sort of beings we are. We are the kind of beings who have these contrasting
tendencies, who are open to all kinds of conflicting emotions.
or spiritual traditions have various methods for dealing with these aspects of
ourselves. The most common technique is called "taming the mind." "Taming"
refers to the fact that we have to domesticate our wild passions, which are divided
into various categories by the different religious traditions. Catholicism refers
to the "seven deadly sins," while Buddhism talks about the "five
kleshas" (conflicting emotions) of desire, anger, jealousy, pride and ignorance.
usual approach is to employ some kind of ascetic method to discipline the mind
and body. That discipline involves punitive measures, which may be either real
or mentally exercised. Sometimes the body may even be subjected to physical tortures
in order to rid it of negativities, because the body is seen as the locus within
which all of the so-called "conflicting emotions" arise. In certain
traditions, the body is seen as the place where the sinful things occur and the
means through which sins are committed. However, if the notion of "taming"
or "subjugation" is not understood properly, the very means that we
use to deal with our conflicting emotions may only succeed in repressing, denying
or fixating on them.
In Buddhism, taming is understood in terms of transforming
the mind, which requires becoming aware of the conflicting emotions, rather than
punishing them. By becoming aware of what is going on in our mind we can learn
how to deal with it. We should not try to tame the mind by waging war on it through
trying to beat down the conflicting emotions. Taming the mind should come about
through learning how to understand the conflicting emotions. If we follow the
ascetic method of punishing ourselves in order to expiate our "sins",
we will never have the chance to understand our minds properly.
if we wish to overcome the negative impact of emotions such as gluttony and greed,
we have to understand how these emotions arise in our minds. One way of relating
to gluttony might be to see fine food as a temptation. Of we were to view things
in this way, we could void even going past a nice restraint in case it tempts
us. However, instead of denying ourselves the opportunity to enjoy food, it would
be more valuable to go to a restraint and observe how we behave when we indulge
in gluttony. If we become aware of how we are stuffing our face with food by being
attentive to this, be becoming conscious of it, we will learn how to tame the
Normally we think that there are only two options available to us. Taking
the example of food again, we either want to get rid of our craving for good food
altogether, or we continue to gorge ourselves with food and stack on the pounds.
We might fast and try to void eating altogether, or we might eat so much that
even after satiating ourselves, we do not want to let go and just continue to
consume mindlessly. We take this approach with many other things. All our energy
is put into accumulating what we desire, and our motivation for doing so is not
necessarily connected to what is being accumulated or the benefit we may gain
from it. It is an automatic, habituated response, as Buddhists would say; habitual
patterns are set up so that we mindlessly indulge in these things.
learn nothing about greed, gluttony, lust or the other conflicting emotions through
this approach. Nor will we gain any great wisdom through the more punitive, ascetic
methods. Our intention to get rid of our sins (if we are Christian) or conflicting
emotions (if we are Buddhist) as quickly as possible is the result of avoiding
any kind of intimate relationship with our experiences. If we are not willing
to develop that kind of intimate relationship, we cannot grow.
compiled a small book called The Wisdom of the Desert, which is his version of
the Christian desert fathers' sayings. In the introduction, he says that many
Christians have actually misunderstood what the desert fathers were doing in the
desert. They assume that the desert fathers did not experience lustful thoughts,
greed or any of the effects of the seven deadly sins. Merton says that this could
not be further from the truth, arguing that the desert fathers "were in the
desert keeping company with the deadly sins," because they were more aware
of their sins than we are. As I said before, when we indulge in sins or conflicting
emotions we do so mindlessly, whereas being aware of these sins was part of spiritual
training for the desert fathers. Rather than trying to get rid of the effects
of those sins, the fathers were constantly working with them, and as a result,
they became transformed.
The first part of learning how to transform ourselves,
then, it to be willing to deal with ourselves as we are, not as we want to be>
We have to be willing to deal with whatever we experience with a sense of openness
and intimacy. We should not be ashamed of the negativities that we have, not try
to suppress or repress them. Feeling shame only reinforces what we are already
experiencing; it does not diminish the impact of those experiences. As modern
psychology has pointed out, the repressed emotions do not go away; they just continue
to operate below the normal conscious state.
Recognising the Importance of
The second part of transformation is to recognize, or reinstate, the importance
of the body. To reiterate, the extreme ascetic perspective is that the body must
be punished, because we feel the effects of the conflicting emotions or deadly
sins through the body. However, when we learn to practice awareness and mindfulness
in Buddhism, it is as much physical as a mental act. Just the act of sitting in
meditation means that we have to become the body, instead of trying to dissociate
our mental states from our physical states.
In its incarnation, the body is
not just a bundle of flesh, bones, fluid and biochemical processes. Without the
body we cannot do any kind of spiritual practice at all. We have to use the body
to practice mindfulness and awareness - we have to pay attention to our physical
posture and we have to pay attention to our breath. Sitting meditation is about
learning how to be the body because the body is not something that we have; the
body is something that we are. The body has to be seen as an integrated unit,
where body and mind have become completely conjoined.
Learning how to become
aware of physical states and processes is an extremely important part of Buddhist
meditation. This includes observing how the body reacts to the conflicting emotions:
How do you feel physically when you get angry? How do you feel physically when
you are lustful? How do you feel physically when you are feeling jealous, when
you feel love, when you are feeling joyous, when you are experiencing pleasure,
when you are physically aroused, when the body is in a state of stasis? These
are the things to be aware of, instead of learning to dissociate ourselves more
and more from the body through our spiritual quest. We have to remember to remember
the body. We have objectified our body so that we use our body as if it were something
that we own, like a toy or a machine or a car. That kind of attitude is totally
non-spiritual, whereas learning to integrate with the body, to reconnect with
or "remember" the body, is a spiritual exercise.
This kind of attention
to the body is very different from how we normally view the body. Even when we
are paying attention to our body through exercise and diet, we still regard it
as something that is there to do our bidding. We go to the gym and if we do not
get the results we want, we get angry with our body as it if were somebody else!
By paying attention to the body with a sense of intimacy, we see that it plays
an important part in everything that we experience. This is not the body that
we "own" and objectify, but the body of our lived experience. Everything
we experience is psychosomatic because the body is always involved, whenever we
look through our eyes, whenever we hear through our eyes, whenever we hear through
our ears, and in everything that we experience in terms of our feelings and sensations.
We can see then, that paying attention to the body is an extremely important aspect
of learning how to transform ourselves on the spiritual path.
to Our Thoughts
The third part of transform involves paying attention to our
thoughts - how we think and what we think about. When we start paying attention
to our thinking, we find that we actually generalize quite a lot. This generalization
involves the aspects of exaggeration and underestimation. It is important to note
that Buddhism recognizes the opposite of exaggeration, which is very hard to translate,
but which si something like "diminution" or "minimization".
We always believe that everything that we think corresponds to the truth. For
instance, whenever we experience something unpleasant we have to find someone
to blame, whether it is ourselves or somebody else. However, sometimes things
just happen, and no one is to blame.
We need to pay attention to how we generalize,
because we generalize about people in so many different ways. For example, if
someone was in a relationship with a person who treated them badly, they tend
to generalize and think that everyone they become involved with in the future
is going to treat them badly as well. In Buddhism, specificity is very important
- we must pay attention to the uniqueness of each circumstance and situation.
should also be noted that from the Buddhist perspective there is rarely ever such
a thing as pure thought. Not pure in the sense that it is unsullied by defilements
and obscurations, but pure in the sense that it is not tainted by some kind of
emotional overtone. Thoughts and emotions almost always go together, so that when
we are attracted to a certain thing we tend to exaggerate all of its positive
qualities and minimize all of its negative ones. This does not mean that thoughts
cause emotions or that emotions bring about thoughts; they simply arise together.
other words, the construction of who we believe we are, what the world is like,
how we should behave and how we should interact, is n ongoing exercise we are
undertaking all the time. By paying attention to our thoughts we can learn how
we are contributing to the world we live in. Buddhists do not believe we are spectators
who have simply been thrown into the world that is pre-made or pre-given. We are
participants in a continuous project of constructing and reconstructing the world
in which we live. This is called vikalpa in Sanskrit and namtok in Tibetan. The
basic point is that it is never a finished project. Everyone is contributing to
the so-called "common world" that we live in. Even the natural world
is to a large degree affected by our human mind.
Although we are always in
a state of transition, transformation does not mean some kind of dramatic transition
from a static state of existence to some other elevated state that is completely
divorced from the previous one. Transformation, in the Buddhist context, is connected
with taking notice of what is happening. If we do not take any notice of what
is happening we do not grow. However, if we begin to notice everything that is
taking place within our minds and bodies and the world around us, we will inevitably
grow as individuals. In that way, the spiritual path is not completely divorced
from our worldly affairs. In fact, dealing with worldly affairs can be as much
a part of the spiritual path as sitting in meditation or doing prayer.
@ Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute
673 Lygon Street (Between Pigdon and Park
Carlton North, Victoria, 3054.
Phone: 9387 0422