Reflections On a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism

The following article is from the Spring, 2002 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

images

This sparkling collection of Dharma teachings by Tenzin Palmo addresses issues of common concent to Buddhist practitioners from all traditions.

"Tenzin Palmo is one of the most genuine and accomplished of western practitioners. Her voice is simple and pure, wise and true."—Jack Kornfield, author of Path with a Heart

"Tenzin Palmo's wonderful teachings are pristine and practical—the natural outpouring of her years of intensive meditation and insight. They are her gift to the world"—Vicki Mackenzie, author of Cave in the Snow, the biography of Ven. Tenzin Palmo

"In this book Ani Tenzin Palmo presents the most timely, profound and lucid advice for all Buddhist practitioners. She has torn away the thousand veils that shroud our self-deceptions. She speaks with the humility of experience rather than charisma, her words resonating with the naked simplicity of clarity and wisdom. Her voice constantly reminds me of everything I have ever loved and perceived as truthful in this life."—Robert Beer, author of The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols & Motifs

"One of the true yoginis of our time, a woman who has dedicated her life to Buddhism, Tenzin Palmo brings her years of experience in a cave to offer us a down-to-earth inspiring approach to the spiritual path. Tenzin Palmo is a voice we need to hear, a woman who has fully experienced what she speaks about with absolute honesty delightful humor, and real insight."—Tsultrim Allione, MA, author of Women of Wisdom

Venerable Tenzin Palmo was born in London in 1943. She traveled to India when she was 20, met her teacher, H.E. the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche, and in 1964 was one of the first western women to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. After six years of study with her teacher, he sent her to the Himalayan valley of Lahoul to undertake more intensive practice. She lived with a small group of nuns in a monastery there for another six years, doing frequent retreats in the long winter months. Seeking more seclusion and better conditions for practice, Tenzin Palmo found a nearby cave where she stayed and practiced for another twelve years, the last three years in strict retreat. The story of her life and experiences in her remote Himalayan cave is described in the book Cave in the Snow by Vicki Mackenzie. Today Tenzin Palmo lives in Tashi Jong, Himachal Pradesh in northern India, where she has established Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery for young women from Tibet and the Himalayan border regions. She frequently teaches around the world.

The following is excerpted from the chapter titled "Difficult Points for Westerners" from Reflections on a Mountain Lake.

This talk is about areas which pose difficulties for some Westerners when they first come to the Dharma, and which may continue to be problematic for them further along in their practice. I would like to begin by talking about doubt. Perhaps because of our Judeo-Christian background, we have a tendency to regard doubt as something shameful, almost as an enemy. We feel that if we have doubts it means that we are denying the teachings and that we should really have unquestioning faith. Now in certain religions, unquestioning faith is considered a desirable quality. But in the Buddhadharma, this is not necessarily so. The Buddha described the Dharma as ehi passiko, which means "come and see," or "come and investigate," not "come and believe." An open, questioning mind is not regarded as a drawback to followers of the Buddhadharma. However, a mind which says, "This is not part of my mental framework, therefore I don't believe it," is a closed mind, and such an attitude is a great disadvantage for those who aspire to follow any spiritual path. But an open mind, which questions and doesn't accept things simply because they are said, is no problem at all.

There is a famous sutra which tells of a group of villagers who came to visit the Buddha. They said to him, "Many teachers come through here. Each has his own doctrine. Each claims that his particular philosophy and practice is the truth, but they all contradict each other. Now we're totally confused. What do we do?" Doesn't this story sound modern? Yet this was 2,500 years ago. Same problems. The Buddha replied, "You have a right to be confused. This is a confusing situation. Do not take anything on trust merely because it has passed down through tradition, or because your teachers say it, or because your elders have taught you, or because it's written in some famous scripture. When you have seen it and experienced it for yourself to be right and true, then you can accept it."

Now that was quite a revolutionary statement, because the Buddha was certainly saying that about his own doctrine too. In fact, all through the ages it has been understood that the doctrine is there to be investigated and experienced, "each man for himself." So one should not be afraid to doubt. Stephen Batchelor wrote a Dharma book entitled The Faith to Doubt. It is right for us to question. But we need to question with an open heart and an open mind, not with the idea that everything that fits our preconceived notions is right, and anything which does not is automatically wrong. The latter attitude is like the bed of Procrustes. You have a set pattern in place and everything you come across must either be stretched out or cut down to fit it. This just distorts everything and prevents learning.

If we come across certain things that we find difficult to accept even after careful investigation, that doesn't mean the whole Dharma has to be thrown overboard. Even now, after all these years, I still find certain things in the Tibetan Dharma which I'm not sure about at all. I used to go to my Lama and ask him about some of these things, and he would say, "That's fine. Obviously you don't really have a connection with that particular doctrine. It doesn't matter. Just put it aside. Don't say, 'No, it's not true.' Just say, 'At this point, my mind does not embrace this.' Maybe later you'll appreciate it, or maybe you won't. It's not important."

There is a film called Groundhog Day, which is really a Buddhist movie because this is exactly what the plot is about. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's about somebody who had to relive the same day again and again until he got it right. He started out with an extremely negative attitude, and so throughout the first day he created a lot of negative causes. People related back to him from his own level of negativity, and so he had a very bad day. Then the next day he had to experience the same day all over again. Then again, and again. He became desperate to find a way out. He attempted suicide many times, but the next morning, there he was again in the same room and the same bed. The date hadn't changed, and the same song was playing on the radio. His attitude underwent many, many changes, until in the end he spent most of his time trying to help people. He forestalled tragedies he knew were going to happen because he had lived the day over so many times, and his whole attitude gradually turned around into working out ways to help others. As his inner attitude transformed, the day gradually got better and better. Finally, he was able to break through to a new day.

images

The more aware we become, the more capable we are of making skillful choices. As we make more and more skillful choices, our lives become increasingly smooth and easy.

The important thing is how we respond to our situation. We can transform anything if we respond in a skillful way. This is precisely what karma is about. If we greet situations with a positive attitude, we will eventually create positive returns. If we respond with a negative attitude, negative things will eventually come our way. Unlike the scenario in the movie, it doesn't always happen right away. We can be very nice people but still have lots of problems. On the other hand, we can be awful people and have a wonderful time. But from a Buddhist perspective, it's just a matter of time before we receive the results of our conduct. And usually it is true that people with a positive attitude encounter positive circumstances. Even if the circumstances do not appear positive, they be transformed through a positive view. On the other hand people with negative minds complain even when things are going well. They also transform circumstances, but they transform positive ones into negative ones!

Both our present and our future depend on us. From moment to moment, we are creating our future. We are not a ball of dust tossed about by the winds of fate. We have full responsibility for our lives. The more aware we become, the more capable we are of making skillful choices. As we make more and more skillful choices, our lives become increasingly smooth and easy. Awareness and clarity of mind are so important because we have produced many of our problems through our confused mental states. Taking responsibility for our lives doesn't mean that we have to blame ourselves for everything. Indulging in feelings of guilt and self-flagellation is useless. Often people tell themselves, "This only happened because I'm such a stupid, worthless person." That is just a waste of time. We need to use our increasing clarity of mind to make positive choices about the present and future rather than focus on the past and wallow in self-blame. We all have innate intelligence. We just have to develop it and gradually detach ourselves from our confusion.

Back to all Snow Lion Articles