31 May, 2009 - I’m a Buddhist, but I know I’ll never leave home and practice in the mountains or do a long retreat. Is there any point for me to practice?
Yes, definitely. When asked by his disciples how to explain the Dharma, the Buddha instructed them to say that an ordinary human called Siddhartha came into the world. He achieved enlightenment. He taught others how he achieved enlightenment and finally he passed into parinirvana.
These statements are of the greatest significance. They teach that an ordinary human being like us can awaken to reality. This is possible because we all posses basic goodness of heart. In this respect, there is no difference between us and the Buddha.
Obviously, there are great advantages to practise as a hermit or monk. Who has not been captivated by tales of Milarepa living in isolated Himalayan caves or by scenes of Theravada monks walking barefoot under the glare of Bangkok’s skyscrapers? These people add colour, authenticity and inspiration to the traditions. However, there are also lay people who reached high levels of attainment.
Take King Ashoka as an example. Without his valiant efforts, the Dharma may never have flourished and spread to all corners of the globe. Likewise, there were ordinary householders who gained enlightenment. Marpa is perhaps the most famous. The Dharma is concerned with transforming our mind and waking us to reality. Whether we enjoy a high or low social status or whether we shave our heads or keep our hair styled is irrelevant.
How can we transform our mundane life into a spiritual journey? Well, it is said that the Buddha taught 84,000 methods that lead beings to uncover our basic goodness of heart. Although the methods differ, they all include three components: view, meditation and action.
To develop the correct view, we should study the ‘Four Seals of Buddhism’. These are ‘all compounded things are impermanent; all emotions are pain; all things have no inherent existence and nirvana is beyond concepts ‘. In order to gain confidence in these teachings, it is important not to read them casually, but work with them as a goldsmith tests gold. Once we agree that the Four Seals represent the truth, we adopt them as the ground in which to interact with our world.
Normally, our lives are dominated by emotions, and even a minor problem causes us to instinctively recoil. Instead, we could use the situation to gain wisdom.
For instance, you are about to speak before a thousand people. Suddenly, you realize that you have brought the wrong script. Rather than making lame excuses and struggling to hold your ground, you allow the rug to be pulled from under. You simply apologize for the inconvenience and observe the embarrassment. There is so much humility and dignity here.
The Four Seals teach us that all compounded things are impermanent and have no inherent existence. Embarrassment, anger and disappointment offer a golden opportunity to experience these truths on a heart level. When we fall apart, simply allow the experience to touch us.
Although fear may initially accompany such responses, acting in this way allows for so much spaciousness and clarity. All our lives we have tried gathering the pieces to recreate the illusion of something solid and unchanging. It hasn’t worked. Meditation allows us to non-judgementally observe. Whatever thoughts arise, we just let them go. We take this practice into our daily life.
Difficult situations are rarely used as practice. We either try to avoid or destroy them. Like a person who shuts the windows and doors to keep their room clean, we try to hold our lives together by avoiding reality. We want security, but instead create hope and fear. Facing problems and watching our mind is like opening the windows and doors. There may be chaos, but there is life and vitality. We embrace the challenges, and use them as a means to gain wisdom. Basically, we stop struggling and allow things to take their course.
To return to the question, Buddhism is not so concerned about discarding the material world, but aims to make us aware of the habitual clinging to phenomena and self and enable us to renounce the clinging. As we familiarize ourselves with the Four Seals, we don’t necessarily discard things, but instead change our attitude towards them. Mediation allows us the space to watch without judgement. We act accordingly.