New From Snow Lion Publications a Passage From Solitude: Training the Mind in a Life Embracing the World By B. Alan Wallace Edited, By Zara Houshmand

The following article is from the Summer, 1992 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Excerpt from the Introduction

In our search for the meaning of life, we may overlook the fact that life doesn't necessarily have any meaning at all. The meaning of life is not presented to us, but is something that we create ourselves. In the third chapter of the Dhammapada the Buddha says, As a fletcher makes straight his arrow, a wise man makes straight his trembling and unsteady thought, which is difficult to guard, difficult to hold back. In this society with its hurly-burly pace demanding of our time, it is ever so easy to let life slip by. Looking back after ten, twenty, thirty years, we wonder what we have really accomplished. We have made so much money per year and spent so much again. We have bought new clothes and worn them out, eaten and deecated, experienced sickness and health. This process of simply existing is not necessarily meaningful. And yet, there is an unlimited potential for meaning and value in this human existence. The Seven-Point Mind Training is one eminendy practical way of tapping into that meaning.

The tradition of the Seven-Point Mind Training can be traced back to Atisa who received these teachings from Serlingpa (gSer gling pa) roughly one thousand years ago. The tradition passed orally to Chekawa ('Chad kha ba), who wrote down the verses of the root text preserved here. The oral transmission of the practice has continued unbroken to the present, and I received it in 1973 from the Tibetan lay teacher Ku-ngo Barshi.

At the time I had recendy become a monk, and was attending the Buddhist School of Dialectics in Dharamsala. I had lived for a while at the Tibetan Medical Center where Ku-ngo Barshi was the chief instructor; he and his wife lived in a very small wooden shack nearby. He was an extremely learned man, a scholar of Buddhist philosophy and logic, as well as Tibetan medicine, astrology, poetry, and grammar. But I was impressed as much by his humility, serenity, and good cheer, as by his erudition.

He was from an aristocratic family in Tibet, and had experienced first-hand the great tragedy inflicted on his homeland when the Chinese communists took over. He fled with his wife to India, but some of his family members stayed behind and had suffered greatly. Later when I got to know him well, he told me that the Chinese had in fact done him a great service. In Tibet, although devoted to the Dharma, he said he had been complacent and somewhat lax in his practice. The hardships he experienced in exile had given hirn insight into the nature of suffering that enhanced the depth and quality of his motivation for practicing Dharma.

The serenity, humility, and good cheer of this man, then in his sixties, proved his point, and I was honored to be taught by him: at the heart of the Seven-Point Mind Training lies this transformation of the circumstances that life brings us, however hard, as the raw material from which we create our own spiritual path.

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Fourteen years after I had received the teachings from Ku-ngo Barshi, I taught on the Seven-Point Mind Training during a nine-month retreat near Lone Pine in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in California. It was October, 1987, when I finished recording the series of talks on which this book is based, which I sent to interested friends in Seattle, Washington at their request. This was an auspicious time of blue skies and cool breezes, when the willows and locust trees turned to colors of fire. After fourteen years as a Buddhist monk, I had recently returned my monastic vows to re-enter lay life, and these were the first teachings I gave as a lay person. The Seven-Point Mind Training was especially meaningful for this transition.

I have entitled this book A Passage from Solitude for two reasons. First, its contents, like passages from a journal, are my reflections while dwelling in the solitudes of the high California desert. Secondly, the central theme of the Seven-Point Mind Training is to make the liberating passage from the constricting solitude of self-centeredness to the warm kinship with others which occurs with the cultivation of cherishing others even more than oneself.

This Mind Training is especially well suited for an active life. It does not require that we withdraw in seclusion, but that we reexamine all of our relationshipsto family, friends, enemies, and strangersand gradually transform our responses to whatever life throws our way. It is a Mahayana practice that aspires to attain full awakening through compassion and loving kindness for all creatures.

The term Mind Training is a literal rendering of the Tibetan lo jong (bio sbyong). The word lo can be translated as mind, attitude, way of thinking, or mind state. But Tibetan makes no distinction between the mind and heart, so the word applies equally to the feelings of the heart. Accurately speaking, the Seven-Point Mind/Heart Training entails a change of heart as much as a transformation of the mind.

The root text of the Seven-Point Mind Training, as recorded by Chekawa, is so concise as to be extremely obscure, but it was never meant to be self-explanatory. The verses, brief enough to be easily memorized, are intended to serve as a mnemonic device for the commentary. After hearing the teachings as oral commentary, or in the surrogate form that a book such as this can offer, then as you recite the verses, hopefully the full meaning comes flooding in from memory. Memorizing a text such as this can help greatly in putting the teachings into practice; whereas, if our knowledge is confined to the pages, it remains on the shelf with the book, easily forgotten when we are caught up in the affairs of daily life.

The commentary serves as a series of guided meditations, alternating with suggestions for sustaining in our active life the insights reached through meditation. Treat it as a workbook, not as something to finish in one reading.

In addition to the oral tradition received from Ku-ngo Barshi, I have used two other commentaries as the background for my own. One is possibly the most ancient commentary on this text that still exists, and yet it remains very useful today. It consists of notes taken during Chekawa's own oral discourses on the Mind Training by a little-known disciple of his named Sechibuwa (Se spyil bu ba). It is not available in translation, so I will share many of Sechibuwa's suggestions, which presumably were inspired by Chekawa himself. The other is among the most recent of contemporary commentaries, found in the excellent book called Advice from a Spiritual Friend, by Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargyey. This is actually a transcription of discourses given by my principal teacher, Geshe Rabten, which I had missed. I had therefore turned to Ku-ngo Barshi for these teachings. As the cycle continues, I hope I have also added something that may especially be of value from the viewpoint of the West.

The order of the verses in Geshe Rabten's book varies from that used here; there are likewise many differences of interpretation between the various commentaries, and between the Mind Training and other teachings. Readers familiar with the stages of the path presented in Lam Rim teachings, for example, will notice that the Mind Training differs significantly in both emphasis and sequence. Such differences should not cause consternation. It is commonly said in Tibet that each lama has his own Dharma. Each teacher is unique, as are the needs of each student, and there is room within the teachings to accommodate these differences.

This touches on an issue I would like to address before beginning with the text, that of the relationship between guru and disciple. What does it mean to enter into such a relationship, and what does the commitment entail?

In choosing a spiritual mentor, if we make that choice, it would be misguided to seek out the teacher with the greatest reputation, the highest status, or the most disciples. Rather, we are well advised to seek the person from whom we receive the greatest blessings. What does this mean? By contact with this person, by simply being with him and conversing with him, we find our mind transformed in a wholesome way. Another teacher, perhaps even someone more knowledgeable and with deeper insight, may not bring about the change of mind and heart that this person's words, presence, and teachings bring to us. The spiritual guide we choose should be someone we trust very deeply, because in essence our commitment is one of trust. It is extremely helpful in our progress on the path to see this person as our chief source of reliance, and his advice to us as the central pillar of our practice.

The relationship need not, and should not, be exclusive. Think of the root guru as the tap root that provides the central source of nourishment for the growth of the plant. Other subsidiary roots may feed into it, picking up minerals or water from sources that the tap root does not reach. Nevertheless, the nourishment of the plant comes chiefly from the tap root, and all of the subsidiary roots are understood within its context. If we feel so inclined, it is well worthwhile to learn from other teachers, even from other traditions. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for instance, has received teachings from teachers trained in various traditions, including the Gelug order and the Nyingma order. And when he first came to the West, he said that the reason for his coming was not to teach, but to learn from the wise men of the West.

Such diversity enriches the teachings of one's root guru, and throws greater light upon them. It also helps to avoid the bigotry and muddle-headed sectarianism implied in the attitude that one's own teacher is superior to all others. Personality cults, or adoration of a guru's charisma, are inappropriate in the context of Buddhism. This is not to deny the affection and respect we feel towards our teachers, or the delight in their presence; but intense emotional attachment is out of tune with the melody of the Buddhadharma.

You may have heard the saying, Rely not on the person, rely on the teachings. The ultimate source of reliance is the Dharma itself. The guru may serve as a doctor, but the teachings are the medicine that actually makes us well. The doctor is there to administer the medicine, to reveal the path to awakening, to aid in the healing process.

The guru/disciple relationship should also be continually balanced by an emphasis on our own Buddha nature. This is known as fruitional refuge, a reliance on the awakened being that we ourselves will become. This self-reliance and cultivation of our own wisdom is essential; there are, and should be, many times when our spiritual mentor is not available, and we must be our own guru. The external guru serves to aid us in unveiling our own Buddha nature, so that our innate wisdom can shine forth ever more clearly.

Although no book, or even tape recording, can replace a direct oral transmission, I hope you benefit from the teaching that follows, because this is the whole point. If you enter the practice and do your best, with perseverance and continuity, and still find that you do not benefit, then I suggest that you switch to something that is effective. The core of Dharma practice is to find whatever works to bring about a more wholesome way of life. It can provide an eternal well-spring of joy in our lives that allows us to be more and more effective in relieving the distress of others and bringing them to a state of greater contentment and well-being.

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