The purpose of spiritual practice

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Part of a series of teachings on a set of verses from the text Wisdom of the Kadam Masters.

  • The purpose of rites and rituals
  • When and why to do ngondro practices
  • Understanding the reasons and psychological methods behind deity and ritual practices
  • The difference between meditating on our problems and meditating on the antidote to our problems
09-21-16 The Purpose of Spiritual Practice - BBCorner

I wanted to continue on that one line we started yesterday:

The best attainment is the lessening of your mental afflictions.

I wanted to talk about that in terms of practice. Somebody asked me just a few days ago about their own personal practice, saying that their relative, who’s also Buddhist, had started doing mandala offerings and many other kinds of things, suggesting that she also do them, but she was hesitant, she wasn’t sure she should do it or not. I recommended that she really stick with the guided meditations on the stages of the path and what’s taught in that book, doing the meditation on the Buddha and then some lamrim meditation. These ngondro (or preliminary) practices—like Vajrasattva, prostrations, mandala offerings, Guru Yoga—they’re very good, and they’re recommended. I have people do them at a certain point in their practice, and I think it’s especially important to get a very solid grounding in lamrim before doing those practices, otherwise you don’t really understand why you’re doing them, and they become just rites and rituals, rather than things that actually transform your mind.

Here at the Abbey we do the 35 Buddhas in the morning. I think that one is fine for new people to jump in and do. That whole idea of purification, as soon as you start learning Buddhism and start looking at your actions—I know for me within a week of meeting the Dharma, boy I wanted to purify. So I think that’s quite fine for people to start at the beginning. After a short while starting Vajrasattva. But again, to start Vajrasattva understanding who are these deities. And what is the psychological method that is happening when you visualize Vajrasattva above your head and light and nectar coming down. You need a whole teaching on it, you need to understand psychologically how it works. Without doing that, if somebody starts just doing the practice because they hear it’s a preliminary practice and you should do it, or because their friend recommended it, if they haven’t had the teachings and don’t understand the reason, then it just becomes ritual that doesn’t transform your mind.

And what this line here, how this is related to this line, is it says “the best higher attainment is the lessening of your mental afflictions.” So if you’re just chanting, or doing mandala offerings, and building up the mandala and putting it down, building it up and putting it down, but you have no idea how to think, or why you’re doing it, or what the symbolism is, or how it transforms your mind, then it does not lessen your mental afflictions. You count a lot of numbers but it doesn’t lessen your afflictions. You need the teachings. You need to understand psychologically how those things work. And to do those practices I think you really need a firm grounding in the lamrim, on the stages of the path, because it’s the lamrim that is really going to make sure that we have the Buddhist worldview. If we don’t have the Buddhist worldview then none of these practices from the preliminary practices make any sense at all. Because if you don’t believe in karma and its effects, and that our actions have an ethical dimension and they’re going to influence our rebirth, if you don’t believe in that then why purify? It doesn’t have any purpose. Why collect merit? Why do mandala offerings if you don’t really have that basic Buddhist worldview? If you’re not sure why you’re even practicing the Dharma, if you haven’t meditated on the four noble truths and on bodhicitta, again, you’re going to be confused why you’re doing all these ritual things. And while some people love the rituals, and for some people who love the rituals and they’ve started them, I’m not going to tell them to stop. Because they’re putting some good imprint on their mind. But for people who ask me before starting these practices “should I do them?” Or whatever, I’m going to look at the individual and see where they are and what is best for them considering their daily schedule, how much time they have to practice, and these kinds of things, and do it on an individual case.

The whole point of all of this is whatever practice we do we have to make sure that it lessens our afflictions. And so it’s true, sometimes you’ve made commitments to do a lot of practices and you run through them really quickly, but it’s good to at least try and make some of it lessening our afflictions. And even the practice of doing them is lessening our affliction of laziness and it’s keeping our promises, which lessens our afflictions. So I think that’s quite important to do.

But to really make sure that our meditation is having that effect. That it’s not increasing our self-centeredness. That every time we meditate we’re contemplating our own problems, going around in circle after circle after circle about them, but not applying the Dharma to our problem. Some people say, “I’m meditating on my problem.” We don’t want to meditate on our problem, we want to meditate on the antidote to our problem. If you have an issue going on, instead of spinning around that issue, you have to say, “What is the antidote to this?” And you have to think for yourself, “What is the antidote to this?” If you’ve heard a lot of teachings and then when you have a problem you don’t know what to practice that indicates that you need to do more meditation on the teachings that you’re receiving, because those teachings are the very things you need to practice when you have a problem. Because you need to come back to that Buddhist worldview. At least, I find that that’s very good for eradicating my problems. If I come back to the determination to be free, the uselessness of the eight worldly concerns, bodhicitta, and some wisdom, whatever problem I have--gone. If I don’t come back to those basic Buddhist concepts I could do 100,000 of this and 100,000 of that, but I’m still churning and angry and upset and everything else. The real thing, meditate on the antidotes. So take enough time at the beginning of your practice, really become familiar with the Buddhist worldview. And then, even if you start these other more ritual practices make sure you’re putting your understanding of the Buddhist worldview into those practices so that it actually transforms your mind. And don’t stop meditating on the Buddhist worldview and the lamrim. Because it’s that analytical process of figuring out: “What do I believe and what don’t I believe in? What’s true and what’s not true?” That’s what’s really going to help our minds.

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