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Practicing Buddhism in daily life

Practicing Buddhism in daily life

Mui and Kuni, Abbey guests, cooking together.

Excerpted from The Path to Happiness by Venerable Thubten Chodron

Many people have the misconception that spiritual life or religious life is somewhere up there in the sky—an ethereal or mystical reality—and that our everyday life is too mundane and not so nice. Often people think that to be a spiritual person, we must ignore or neglect our everyday life, and go into another, special realm. Actually, I think being a spiritual person means becoming a real human being. Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Vietnamese monk, said, “It is not so important whether you walk on water or walk in space. The true miracle is to walk on earth.” It’s true. In other words, becoming a kind human being is probably the greatest miracle we can perform.

One time I gave a talk in a Hong Kong school to a group of children. One child asked, “Can you bend spoons with your mind?” Another asked, “Has God ever talked to you?” They were very disappointed when I said, “No.” I went on to explain that for me a real true miracle is becoming a kind human being. If you have psychic powers but lack a kind heart, the powers are of no use. In fact, they could even be disadvantageous: people may get very upset if they find all their spoons have been bent!

Upon waking up

How do we cultivate a kind heart? It is not enough to tell ourselves that we should be nice, because telling ourselves what we should or should not be, feel, or do doesn’t make us become that way. Filling ourselves with “shoulds” often just makes us feel guilty because we never are what we think we should be. We need to know how to actually transform our mind. In other words, we must realize the disadvantages of being self-centered. We must truly want to develop a kind heart, not just keep thinking that we should develop a kind heart. In the morning, when we first wake up, before getting out of bed, before thinking about what we will eat for breakfast or which obnoxious jerk we will see at the office, we can start the day by thinking, “Today as much as possible, I won’t harm anybody. Today as much as possible I am going to try be of service and benefit to others. Today I want to do all actions so that all living beings can attain the long-term happiness of enlightenment.”

Setting a positive motivation the first thing in the morning is very beneficial. When we first wake up, our mind is very subtle and delicate. If we set a strong positive motivation at this time, there is a greater chance of it staying with us and influencing us throughout the day. After generating our positive motivation, we get out of bed, wash, maybe have a cup of tea, and then meditate or recite prayers. By starting the day in this way, we get in touch with ourselves and become our own friend by treasuring and reinforcing our good qualities.

Finding time to meditate each day

Sometimes it is difficult to find time to meditate each day. But we always have time to watch TV. We always have time to go shopping. We always have time to get a snack from the refrigerator. Why is it that the 24 hours run out when it is time to meditate? When we understand the value and effect of spiritual practice, then it will become a high priority in our life, and when something is very important, we find time for it. In this way, try to set up a daily meditation practice of maybe 15 or 30 minutes in the morning. To do that, we might have to experience the “incredible sacrifice” of giving up 15 or 30 minutes of television the previous evening so we can go to bed a little earlier. In the same way that we always find time to eat because food nourishes our body, we will find time to meditate and recite some prayers because it nourishes us spiritually. When we respect ourselves spiritually, we respect ourselves as human beings. Nourishing ourselves in that way then becomes a very important priority.

Morning meditation

In the morning, it is good to begin your meditation session with a few prayers and cultivate the altruistic intention to benefit others by doing the meditation. Then do the breathing meditation for a while. Sit calmly, experience your breath going in and out, and be aware of the breath nourishing you. Just be in the present moment with the breath, and let all the discursive thoughts and worries subside. You may want to chant Kuan Yin’s (Avalokiteshvara’s) mantra or that of the Buddha. It is helpful to remember the Buddha’s qualities at this time for it inspires us to emulate the Buddha’s kindness, wisdom and skill in our daily activities. Or you may do an analytic meditation, thinking about the meaning of a particular teaching the Buddha gave and applying it to your own life. This also steers your energy in a very positive direction first thing in the morning.

Some people say, “I have children. How can I meditate or say prayers in the morning when they need my attention?” One way is to get up earlier than your children. Another idea is to invite your children to meditate or chant with you. One time I was staying with my brother’s family. My niece, who was about six or seven at that time, used to come into my room because we were the first two to wake up in the morning. As I was reciting prayers or meditating, I explained to her that this is a time when I am quiet and do not want to be disturbed. She would come in and sometimes she would draw. Other times, she would sit in my lap. Several times she asked me to sing to her, and I would chant prayers and mantras out loud. She really liked this and did not disturb me at all.

It is very good for children to see their parents sit still and be calm. That gives them the idea that maybe they too can do the same. If Mom and Dad are always busy, running around, talking on the phone, stressed out, or collapsed in front of the TV, the kids will also be like this. Is this what you want for your children? If you want your children to learn certain attitudes or behaviors, you have to cultivate them yourselves. Otherwise, how will your children learn? If you care about your children, you have to care about yourselves as well and be mindful of living a healthy and balanced life for their benefit as well as for your own.

You can also teach your children how to make offerings to the Buddha and how to recite simple prayers and mantras. Once, I stayed with a friend and her three-year-old daughter. Every morning when we got up, we would all bow three times to the Buddha. Then, the little girl would give the Buddha a present—a cookie or some fruit—and the Buddha would give her a present also, a sweet or a cracker. It was very nice for the child, because at age three she was establishing a good relationship with the Buddha and at the same time was learning to be generous and share things. When my friend cleaned the house, did chores or went places with her daughter, they would chant mantras together. The little girl loved the melodies of the mantras. This helped her because whenever she got upset or frightened, she knew she could chant mantras to calm herself down.

Practicing Dharma at the workplace

Let’s return to your daily practice. After your morning meditation, have breakfast and set off for work. How are you going to practice Dharma at work? First, try to remember the kind heart and the motivation you cultivated in the morning. Throughout the day, continually remind yourself that you don’t want to harm anybody, that you want to be of service to them, and that you seek to do all actions for the ultimate enlightenment of yourself and others. To remind yourself of this, you can use a frequent event as a trigger to call you back to your motivation. For example, every time you stop at a red light, instead of being irritated and thinking, “Why is this red light so long? I’m late for work!” think, “Today, I want to have a kind heart towards others.” Thus the red light becomes an opportunity to remember the kind heart. When the telephone rings, instead of rushing to pick it up, first think, “May I be of service to whomever is on the line.” Then answer the phone. Every time your pager goes off, calmly come back to the kind heart, then respond to the call. A friend told me that her trigger to come back to the kind heart was her children calling, “Mommy! Mommy!” Since this happened frequently throughout the day, she became familiar with the kind heart and also was much more patient with her children.

Throughout the day, try to be aware of what you are thinking, feeling, saying, and doing, instead of living on “automatic.” When we live on automatic, we go through life reacting to things but never really experiencing what life is about. This is why we feel out of touch with ourselves, like strangers to ourselves. For example, you get in the car and drive to work. When you got to work, if somebody asked you, “What did you think about during the half hour you were driving?” you probably wouldn’t know. We are unaware of what is going on inside us. Yet a lot is going on and this influences how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to other people.

Cultivating mindfulness

The antidote to living on automatic is to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being aware of what we are thinking, feeling, saying, and doing each moment. It also means being mindful of our ethical values and of the kind heart, so that we can live according to them in our daily lives. By cultivating this awareness, we will no longer be spaced out, just reacting to things, and then wondering why we are so confused and exhausted at the end of the day. If we are mindful, we will notice that we have a kind heart and will enrich it and let our actions flow from it. Or, we might become aware that we are upset, irritated, angry, or are on the verge of scolding somebody. If we realize that, we can come back to our breath, come back to our kind heart, instead of throwing our negative energy out in the world.

Being mindful of living in an interdependent world

We also become more mindful of how we interact with our environment. We realize that we live in an interdependent world, and if we pollute our environment, we are affecting ourselves, our children, and other living beings. Because we are mindful of being kind, we will curtail the ways in which we pollute the environment. We will carpool when going to work or school, instead of using up gasoline in a car by ourselves. We will recycle the things we use: paper, cans, plastic containers, bottles, glass jars, and newspapers. We know that if we throw these away in the garbage, we are destroying our planet and are affecting other beings in a negative way. Thus, we will reuse our plastic bags and paper bags when we go to the supermarket. In addition, we will not leave our air conditioners or heaters on when we are not home, and will not use products such as styrofoam whose production releases many pollutants into the air.

I think that if the Buddha were alive today, he would establish vows that said we have to recycle and stop wasting resources. Many of our monastic vows arose because lay people complained to the Buddha about what monks or nuns did. Each time this happened, the Buddha would establish a precept in order to curb the detrimental behavior. If the Buddha were alive today, people would complain to him, “So many Buddhists throw out their tin cans, glass jars, and newspaper! They use disposable cups, chopsticks and plates, which not only make more garbage but also cause the destruction of many trees. They do not seem to care about the environment and the living beings in it!” I would feel pretty embarrassed if I was doing that and someone complained to the Buddha about my behavior, wouldn’t you? That’s why I think the Buddha would definitely set down vows saying that we have to recycle and to curtail consumption.

Being mindful of our actions

Mindfulness also enables us to be aware if we are about to act destructively as we go through the day. Mindfulness says, “Uh oh! I’m getting angry,” or “I’m being greedy,” or “I’m feeling jealous.” Then we can apply the various antidotes the Buddha taught to help us calm our minds. For example, if we discover we are annoyed and anger is arising, we can stop and look at the situation from the other person’s point of view. When we do this, we recognize they want to be happy, and because they aren’t happy, they are doing that action we find objectionable. Then instead of harming them out of anger, we will be more compassionate and understanding, and will work with them to negotiate an agreement.

But how do we do this when a quarrel is just about to start or we’re already in the middle of one? We have to practice beforehand, in our meditation practice. In the heat of the situation, it is difficult to remember what the Buddha taught if we haven’t practiced it already when we were calm and peaceful. In the same way that a football team practices on a regular basis, we need to meditate on patience and to recite prayers daily to get well-trained. Then when we encounter a situation in daily life, we will be able to use the teachings.

Offering our food

Another practice to increase our mindfulness and help us remember our motivation is offering our food before we eat. We imagine the food to be blissful wisdom nectar—something very delicious that increases our bliss and wisdom, not our attachment, when we eat. Then we imagine a small Buddha made of light at our heart. When we eat, we offer this nectar to the Buddha at our heart. The Buddha radiates light that fills us up. To do this, you don’t need to sit in perfect meditation position in the middle of a restaurant! You can visualize and contemplate in this way while waiting for the food. While your companions or business associates continue to chat, you can do this visualization and offer your food to the Buddha without anyone knowing. Sometimes, for example, when you’re at home with your family, you can pause and focus on offering your food. It’s very nice for a family to recite together a prayer offering their food. I stayed with one family and their six-year-old son led us in reciting the prayer. It was very touching.

When you eat, eat mindfully. Be aware of the effort other people put into growing, transporting, and preparing the food. Realize your interdependence with other living beings and how much benefit you have received from them, such as the food we eat. If we reflect in this way before we eat, we will feel very happy and grateful when we eat, and we will eat more mindfully too. And if we eat mindfully, we won’t overeat, and then we won’t have to spend so much money on special diets to lose weight!

It is important to eat in a dignified manner. Sometimes we see people in a cafeteria line who haven’t even paid for the food yet and are already shoveling it in. This is eating on automatic. It resembles a dog who runs to the bowl and slurps up the food. When we do this reflection and offer our food to the Buddha at our heart, we eat slower and are more relaxed. This is how human beings eat.

Reviewing the day

In this way, we maintain mindfulness and enrich our kind heart as we go through the day. When we come home in the evening, instead of collapsing in front of the TV or dropping on the bed and falling asleep, we can take a few minutes to sit quietly by ourselves. We reflect about and come to terms with what happened during the day. We look back over our day and think, “What went well today? Did I act with a kind heart?” We notice the instances when we acted kindly and rejoice. We dedicate that merit, that positive potential, for the enlightenment of ourselves and others.

In reviewing the day, we may discover that we were angry, jealous, or greedy. We didn’t realize it at the time when it was happening. But looking back over the day, we don’t feel so good about what happened. It may have been our attitude, or what we said to somebody, or how we acted. To remedy this, we develop regret and do some purification practice so we can forgive ourselves and let that negative energy go. In this way, we “clean up” emotionally and resolve any uncomfortable feelings or misdirected actions that may have arisen during the day. Having done this, our sleep will be peaceful. When you lie down, imagine the Buddha sitting on your pillow and put your head in the Buddha’s lap when you go to sleep. This is very comforting and helps you to remember the Buddha’s good qualities and to have better dreams.

Our life becomes meaningful

Practicing Dharma is not difficult or time-consuming. We always have time; there are always 24 hours in a day. If we direct our mind in a positive direction, we can transform whatever action we do into the path to enlightenment. In this way, the Dharma becomes part of our life in an organic way. Getting up in the morning is Dharma, eating and going to work is Dharma, sleeping is Dharma. By transforming our attitude in the midst of daily activities, our life becomes very meaningful.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.