Book coverby Lama Sherab Dorje

The Great Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, in several of his writings, berates practitioners who believe they can immerse themselves in the “worldly dharmas,” and at the same time practice the essential points of the path. And yet no less an authority than the Mahasiddha Tilopa reminded his disciple Naropa that it is not the appearances of the world that enslave him, but rather his craving for them. We may regard these as endorsements of the monastic and mahasiddha paths, respectively.

The apparent tension between these two approaches is a source of great concern and self-doubt for many western Buddhists. Our problem seems to be that it is not so easy to deepen our practice merely through understanding that—or even how—our own grasping enslaves us. Yet monasticism or cave dwelling is a viable or attractive option for few people who are raised and immersed in western society and culture.

To compound the difficulty, many of the greatest Mahasiddhas of the East entered that path only after long and distinguished careers as scholars and paragons of the vinaya lineages. And while others did manage to find the essence of the teachings through, to put it bluntly, profound shock, that level of shock is something to which few of us are prepared to be exposed.

We all know that the great Trungpa Rinpoche had strong insights about this dilemma, and set about creating an entire social and cultural framework for a sane society, a western sangha, integrated seamlessly into western society at large. And that has been a noble experiment, from which thousands upon thousands of students have benefitted. And the experiment continues.

At the same time, it is clear that whoever lacks a firm foundation in the four contemplations that reorient the mind toward the dharma, lacks heartfelt sorrow for the plight of all suffering beings, and lacks insight into the nature of awareness that permeates and yet is unstained by thoughts, will continually be frustrated and disappointed by the results of (so-called) combining practice with everyday life. It seems few, if any, western tantric practitioners have attained much freedom from their obscurations (so far) through long hours of hard work, hard drinking, relationships and movies.

So as not to paint too one-sided a picture, it is perhaps equally clear that when, for the sake of practice, we try too hard to isolate ourselves from the experiences and challenges of life in this saturated society, we can easily end up feeling unbalanced, if not unable to cope. That is not particularly skillful, as little support exists in our society for yogis with long, dirty fingernails. Our ingrained attitude is that begging is begging. Not very noble. So we are all challenged to become truly skillful at weaving a role for ourselves into the fabric of society, no matter how devoted we are to practice. To become, in other words, minisiddhas.

Over the years, so many dharma students have expressed to me the feeling that their daily activities are impediments, because they crowd out the time, and drain the energy, needed for practice. What each of us who has ever felt this way really means, I suspect, is that we find ourselves unable to work effectively with our own experience while immersed in these activities. Rather, we fall helplessly under the power of distraction and ingrained patterns of thought and speech. We get so emotionally and conceptually invested in our busy lives that we then feel a craving for release, for distraction to compensate for the effort and tension.

It turns out that while we are caught in this kind of cycle, no amount of good advice on skillful methods to use daily life situations to enhance our experience of mindfulness, devotion, compassion and pure vision is of much use to us. We know that we need to rely on such methods, but somehow we just can’t.

But we can take our feelings of discouragement, and turn them around by cherishing and cultivating the key recognition that is at their core. If we feel discouraged, this means we have at least remembered that there is something important that we have forgotten to do. And so the quality of recollection—a key point of practice—is already there. This is a simple but extremely crucial point. If we want to remember how to use daily life experiences to enhance and deepen practice, first we must remember to remember to do so. We can call this indispensable step recollection. Recollection means stepping back within our own minds, over and over again. Checking in, as it were. This is, unsurprisingly, very much like what we do from moment to moment in applying mindfulness in the basic practice of calm abiding (samatha) meditation.

Before we can sustain the continuity of practice when we are not in an isolated practice environment, we need to strengthen, to reinforce, our sense of appreciation and conviction that we can—and must—practice in each moment. This is simply building a habit of recollection in all activities, or as the meditation instruction manuals tend to call it, maintaining the continuity of awareness between meditation (formal sessions) and postmeditation (the rest of the time).

Once we remember to remember to apply skillful techniques we have learned to daily life situations, it turns out the work is at least half done. Our toolkit is open and we have already reached in. It is a simpler matter to pull out the right tool. That we know already how to do, or can easily learn from a qualified teacher.

That is why the first among Gampopa’s famous “four dharmas” is the aspiration that one’s mind follow the dharma. Only once our minds follow the dharma, the dharma follows the path, and the path begins to remove our confusion, are we able to begin genuinely to recognize the relationship between mere appearances and the true nature of our being. At that point we no longer mistakenly crave fulfillment through our interactions with the display of appearances.

But what do we do in the meantime, so as not to waste this precious human life in activities we know, at least intellectually, will never bring us lasting satisfaction? When we know our deepest purpose in life is to strive to attain realization for the benefit of all with whom we come in contact? When we are not really satisfied to let these noble aspirations remain platitudes?

We have to become minisiddhas at work. Working minisiddhas. But what enables us to do this in the first place, to seize upon the precious quality of recollection and be resolute in applying it?

To do this, we have to internalize our understanding of the basic nature of suffering, its causes, and the path that leads beyond suffering; to be convinced that our klesas (disturbed mind states) are not our friends or trustworthy advisors; to be cognizant of how remarkable it is each time we draw another breath as a conscious and healthy human being; and to entrust our welfare to the sources of refuge.

If we persist in this seemingly hard choice to trust the teachings more than we do our habits and conditioning, more than our own coping skills, more than our cleverness or sweetness or seductiveness, then our minds genuinely become joined or fused with the dharma itself. At first this requires deliberate and repeated reflection, contemplation. But as the Buddha said, through imitation we become conditioned to what is real.

This gets right to the heart of the matter. I don’t know of any teaching of Buddhadharma that is more ignored or rejected by western Buddhists than the one which says the preliminary practices are more profound than the practices that follow them, the so-called “main” practices. It doesn’t matter that the great Sakya Pandita, or the Drikung Kyabgon, or any other great master said it—we just don’t believe it, or we don’t want to believe it. We think they are just having us on, that they are speaking in a provisional or expedient way for a specific audience to which we do not belong.

Sooner or later, however, when we appraise ourselves, we each must admit and acknowledge that, to make real progress in reducing the intensity of our disturbed mind states, to experience deep compassion for beings, and to maintain an unfabricated connection to our own, basic clarity, we need a strong foundation in practice. We don’t get there through scholarship, and we don’t get there by an introduction to a profound view that we cannot carry over into “ordinary” life experience.

Having a strong foundation means we are at the point where, more often than not, we are able and willing to regard any type of experience as an opportunity to observe, to correct, to apply skillful means. And it is the common and uncommon preliminary practices that build such a foundation, that instill in us a force of recollection that overrides other forms of conditioning. When you have this quality, it is fair to say you have all of the blessings of the gurus and of the enlightened ones of the past, present and future. You have, in other words, everything you need to walk the same path to enlightenment, no matter the workplace corridors and city streets on which you tread.

Here are some of the signs, as described in meditation practice manuals, that you are on your way, that you are a minisiddha in training. You will:

• remember your guru’s kindness, or your bodhisattva aspiration, or your commitment to practice, first thing when you wake up in the morning and last before you slip into sleep at night;
• remember to offer each pleasing sense experience for the enjoyment of the enlightened ones, and dedicate the merit of that offering for the welfare of all sentient beings;
• feel a soft, accomodating wound in your heart each time you are confronted with the suffering of any being, including the suffering that comes from that being’s pride, jealousy and anger directed at you;
• frequently remember the kindness of your teachers and the wondrous qualities of the teachings for no apparent reason at all, such that you become tearful and your heart aches in a happy but wistful way;
• see absolutely no downside to being kind or forgiving;
• feel a parental pride in the kind or generous acts of total strangers, without concerning yourself with their motivation;
• be able to stop your chattering and outwardly focused mind in an instant, and effortlessly remain in a state of clarity and rest, without grasping.

I don’t want to create a false impression that turning our minds toward the dharma in the midst of all activities is a simple thing to do, a quick fix for our stubborn habits and annoying tendencies. But the critical acknowledgement and insight that we have no choice but to do so is extremely powerful. Once we acknowledge that we must build up our capacity and willingness—if not eagerness—to use everything that happens to us and around us as a reminder to practice, the closer we come to the fundamental insight that this is precisely how wisdom and compassion grow, how the path works.

We need to get over, once and for all, the childish idea that realization happens if and only if we can avoid prolonged exposure to the harmful radiation of apparent existence, perhaps in a lead vault, or in a forest where the birds don’t chirp too loud. Because that will never happen. Buddhas don’t appear in this world because they manage to avoid its trappings long enough to escape to a pure place, but because they are able to, and aspire to, connect to the world from a completely pure and sane perspective. They eliminate craving and the cloaking effect of ignorance that gives rise to craving within themselves. They don’t do this by relating to the phenomenal world in a selective and partial way, which is precisely how we perpetuate the cycle of existence as sentient beings in the first place. The minisiddha path is not about trying to get somewhere better through manipulating and controlling conditions that are empty and impermanent and not subject to such control or manipulation. So that is exactly what we need to stop doing.

That said, the importance of taking advantage of opportunities to practice under conducive conditions while we are trying to stabilize our capacity and willingness to bring difficult conditions to the path cannot be emphasized enough. We are where we are. If we can make the time to do serious retreat, and we understand the purpose for doing retreat, nothing could do more to launch us deep into ourselves, to ground us in positive habits that reinforce our recollection of the essential points of practice and how to apply them.

When I used to work, years ago, with practitioners who were going into and out of strict retreat every six months at Trungpa Rinpoche’s Gampo Abbey in the Canadian wilds, some of them seemed traumatized by the push and pull effects of that approach, of building up lifestyles and identities and watching them crumble away, over and over again. And yet, how brilliant that approach was! It was like a minisiddha factory, once the practitioners got the point that getting comfortable with being in retreat was not the point, and that coping successfully with being out of retreat was also not the point.

Each of us has to examine ourselves honestly, and consult with trusted spiritual advisors, to figure out if and how serious retreat may be necessary to build the foundation we need. For example, it is just more practical and effective to do hundreds of thousands of prostrations and mandala offerings in a retreat environment. But the choice to be in retreat is one we will never make so long as we think we have more to lose than to gain by doing so. That means that the most fundamental task every step along the way is to work with the so-called “preliminary” teachings that turn us, gradually but definitely, toward the understanding that it is the path of practice that accomplishes the true welfare of self and others.