A Balanced Approach to the Dharma
Dr. Alexander Berzin
When we come to a Dharma center, we find in the West that people come with various interests and various motivations. Some people of course are very serious in terms of seeking some type of spiritual path, but there are others that come just to satisfy their wish for exotica, or to find some sort of miracle cure if they’re suffering from either some emotional or physical difficulty, or to be trendy, or to get high like a Dharma junkie on the charisma of an entertaining teacher.
But even if people start that way, they find that eventually they develop sincere interest in what Dharma has to offer. And when we come to a Dharma center in the beginning, the first thing that we try to do, many of us, is to learn some information, in other words, find out “What’s this all about?” We might have read a little bit, but it’s always better to get it from a live person, a teacher, or from a peer group.
Then, as people get into the Dharma, you find that there are three general types of approaches that people have: the intellectual approach, the emotional approach, and the devotional approach. A lot, of course, depends on the teacher, the way that the teacher presents the material, and also on each person’s inclination. And each of these approaches can be followed in either a mature or an immature point of view from a Dharma standpoint. So what I’d like to do is to look at these two possibilities, the immature and the mature ways of intellectually, emotionally, and devotionally approaching the Dharma and see what they look like.
The Intellectual Approach
An immature intellectual approach would be one that is just fascinated with beauty of the system. This is very true. The Dharma teachings are incredibly intricate, complex, and very beautiful in that intricacy. One can get completely fascinated by that and then just want to learn more and more facts, learn more and more ways in which the philosophy and the psychology and all these things come together. And then we don’t really integrate that. We don’t really digest that or feel anything. That is one type of extreme that tends to go to the extreme of insensitivity in terms of blockage of feelings.
The mind of course is very, very tricky, especially if you have a clever mind. A clever mind is very good at putting together information and finding all sorts of theories. In fact, one of the signs of intelligence is actually that ability to see patterns, like a scientist coming up with new theories. If we’re able to see the patterns, from a Buddhist point of view that’s called the equalizing type of deep awareness of the five types of deep awareness or “Buddha-wisdoms,” they’re sometimes called, to be able to see the equality of things and how they fit together.
But the problem with that, of course, is that you can find all sorts of patterns, many of which are fairly meaningless. The mind makes up all types of things and we can come up with all sorts of nonsense theories and beautiful ways in which the teachings fit together. And they may not at all have a benefit; they may lead us astray. And we can also get a little bit arrogant about that. As I say, you can become a little bit intoxicated almost by the beauty of these patterns or schemes that we see. So, that would be the immature intellectual approach, to just gather more and more facts and fit it together and then getting more into that.
There is of course the mature intellectual approach. The mature intellectual approach is to try to learn all the various aspects of the teachings in terms of facts, materials, systems, and so on, so that we can actually understand the teachings and integrate them and apply them. Because, as everybody always emphasizes, one needs to learn the teachings. The teachings are rather complex. That sometimes puts people off, actually, with Buddhism, particularly the Tibetan form of Buddhism, I should say, because it is so complex.
But that complexity, I like to see it in terms of a network theory – one of my pet things that I like very much are networks. When we study the Dharma, it’s very much like getting pieces of a puzzle. You get various pieces of it and it’s not so obvious how they fit together and they’re taken from like different parts of the puzzle and sometimes they’re actually taken from different puzzles, it seems to us. And this is the great challenge. The great challenge is to try to fit them together. And they always fit together in a multidimensional type of way.
It’s like when you study lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. First you go through it straight in order, in the sequence. And learning it in the sequence is very important. But that’s just the first step in the process. Then what one tries to do is to go back and try to look at how the more advanced teachings network and fit in to the basic level teachings. And the more other topics within the Dharma that we learn, we try also to fit these pieces in. And they’re fitting in in many, many different ways.
As I say, the danger, of course, is doing that just because it’s so beautiful; we get fascinated by how things fit together. But if we do that in a more mature way, then at each level as we progress, the network gets larger and larger. And that’s very important to remember is that all the disparate pieces that we receive are all part of a larger puzzle. Even though it might not seem like that to us, they all fit together in some sort of way.
Like the study of the tenet systems, the four schools of Indian Buddhist tenets. Sometimes they seem really very weird, in a sense, because it’s so complex and almost contradictory in the ways in which different theories are explained, different topics are explained. But that as well fits in, in a network. Whether or not it was originally intended that way in the historical development is something else, but the way the Tibetans approach these Indian tenet systems is that they are progressive stages of understanding and ideas, that one narrows in on a more and more sophisticated and subtle explanation of things.
As one progresses, what’s very important in that type of study is to realize that, as my teacher Serkong Rinpoche said, that these people are not stupid – the ones that think in terms of the Chittamatra (Mind-Only) or the Vaibhashika or the Sautrantika, any of these systems – but to realize that each of them is an extremely viable and beneficial system and they were all taught by Buddha in one form or another. Of course that depends on how you define Buddha, whether you look at Buddha in terms of a historical figure or you look in terms of a Mahayana view of a Buddha manifesting zillions of forms in zillions of places all over the universe and over time. But in any case they were all taught for a benefit.
And what one tries to do is to understand the world, see the world through each of these pictures, these world-views, to understand really how it’s functioning and why one would need this type of insight into reality – if we just limit our topic to reality. For instance with the Vaibhashika, what’s considered the most basic school, you get into the understanding that things seem really solid, but they’re made of atoms, they’re made of particles, they’re made of moments. And so we deconstruct our solid view of reality and that’s something which is very profound.
If we can understand that and really work with that, then that provides a basis then for going on to the Sautrantika view. That starts to differentiate mental projections from reality, from what’s called “objective reality,” “OK, I understand that my body is just made up of atoms and energy fields and so is everything around me, but what about all the fantasies that we have? We project that.” And so you start to see that “OK, there’s an objective reality.” That brings us back down to earth. That’s a second step.
Then you get into the Chittamatra, which brings in the relationship with the mind. It’s not just that the mind is projecting conceptual thoughts, but actually everything is associated with the mind. You can’t really speak in terms of an objective reality out there, independent from karma. It’s each person’s karmic impulses, karmic forces that create the appearances that we perceive. Once you get that relationship with mind to everything, then you can modify that. And in Chittamatra they start that with just forms, but then you can modify that and apply it to “Well, how does the mind itselfexist?”
Then you start to get into Madhyamaka. And then in terms of a relationship of mind to appearances, to what we experience, then you get into this whole mental labeling thing. So it forms a progression and they network together. Because in fact all of these insights, all of these views are valid and helpful and beneficial. And the more that we see the whole process of development in this, the more we can apply it to ourselves, the more we can actually integrate it. Then it’s not just learning about these beautiful complex systems and we try to get more pieces of information about it and are just fascinated by its intricacy.
Like that, a more mature intellectual approach looks to these very complex teachings that we find in Buddhism and tries to network them all together, not just for the beauty of it, but for the sake of integrating it, for the sake of seeing: how does it actually apply? How can it apply? That I think is an important consequence of refuge actually. “Refuge,” I don’t like that term very much, because it’s too passive. But it’s more a process of going in a “safe direction” in life, as exemplified by the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
If we sincerely take our direction from the Dharma, what is the Dharma? That direction is the third and fourth noble truths, basically, true cessation and the true path that leads to that true state, the state in which the suffering and its causes are gone forever. Not just that one moment of it has disappeared, because one moment of it is going to end anyway, or one little chunk of it is going to end anyway, because of impermanence. But the point is that it stops forever, so that it doesn’t recur, because the causes of it are gone; they’re not going to recur.
So that state plus the understanding that will bring that about, plus the resulting understanding that comes from that stopping – that’s our actual direction; that’s what we’re aiming for – to get a true stopping of this confusion and all the suffering that it brings and to gain a true stable state of mind that has the deep awareness of reality and is able to sustain that all the time. And if that’s what we’re aiming for, then that’s our safe direction. Buddhas are the ones who have achieved that in full; the Sangha are those who have achieved it in part.
Buddhas are the ones who indicate it by their verbal teachings, their own realizations; the Sangha are those who help us by giving us their “enlightening influence” is what it’s called. They influence us in a positive type of way to also go in that direction. If we take that direction seriously, then we would look at everything that is taught by Buddha as being intended for that. No matter how weird any of the teachings might seem, and sometimes they seem pretty weird, if we have really this very strong confidence in this safe direction, then we look at it in terms of, “Well, what is it that this actually means?” and not take it literally.
From a Mahayana point of view, you have interpretable and definitive meanings. If something is interpretable, that needs to be interpreted, not taken literally; it’s something which is intended to take us deeper. So we look for the deeper meaning. We try to see, “Where is this leading to?” And with total confidence that it has to be leading to... where? True stopping and a true path that will bring that about, a true path of mind. That’s very, very important, because sometimes if we approach things in an intellectual type of way, then we lose sight of where it’s supposed to be going.
But if you can keep in mind that anything that we approach, even if it’s from an intellectual point of view, that it’s intended to lead toward that true stopping and a true path that will lead to that, and not just abstractly or in Buddha, but in our own mind-streams, in our own mental continuums and those of others that we would try to help in some sort of way – then we look for that deeper meaning. No matter how weird the teaching might seem, we don’t ignore it. Buddha must have taught it for some reason. And we try to fit it together with everything else that we’ve studied and learned. Looking at it in that way is a mature intellectual approach to the Dharma, it’s not dry.
The Emotional Approach
That’s one way of approaching the Dharma. And another way of approaching the Dharma is the emotional way. That also has both an immature and a mature way of dealing with the Dharma. The immature way would be to do meditation and various practices basically just to calm down and to feel good. People who meditate on love to everybody, “Oh, how wonderful it is,” and “May everybody be happy,” and just filled with all this love and emotion and so on. But they don’t actually apply any of this development of emotion to overcoming their disturbing emotions or disturbing attitudes. It’s just sort of an indulgence in feeling good by loving everybody, “Everything is so beautiful. Everything is so wonderful.”
So if the immature intellectual approach can degenerate into a sort of a Dharma insensitivity, this immature emotional approach can degenerate into an oversensitivity type of way of dealing with the teachings. And so that type of person only wants to hear about the nice things in the Dharma; they don’t want to hear about the hells and the ghosts and all this sort of stuff, because that’s just too terrible, that’s not nice. They only want the nice bits that’ll make them feel good. That type of approach, if you take it to an extreme, also is not really understanding very much of what’s going on; it’s just a strong emotion.
The mature way of approaching Dharma from an emotional point of view is to work with our emotions, to get rid of disturbing ones and develop positive ones. This is, I think, very essential. If we work with emotions, we have to deal with all of them and sort out which are the positive ones, which are the negative ones, which are helpful, which are detrimental and apply various methods for increasing the positive ones and decreasing the negative ones, rather than just indulging in those that make us feel good.
In terms of that emotional approach, one of the things that I find very helpful, which can help us to anchor our emotions in reality, is to extend our meditation beyond just the realm of visualization. Restricting ourselves to visualization opens us up to not really connecting to people, not really connecting to situations. We sit and we imagine love to all sentient beings, which is so vague, it doesn’t actually mean anything. Or we’re working with love for the hell creatures and if we can deal with the hell creatures, love with the hell creatures and the ghosts and all these sort of things – but it’s not applied to anybody. We’re sort of in our little dream world, feeling good.
Whereas what I find is very effective is doing these type of meditations, first of all with your eyes open, sitting in a circle with other people, as I do with sensitivity training, this program that I worked on and developed in this book called Developing Balanced Sensitivity, in which you actually sit in a circle with a group of people and try to develop these positive attitudestowards them, towards real people. And actually in that program what we do is we work with three levels. First we work with people who aren’t there, but rather than visualizing, which for many of us is not so highly developed as a skill, we work with photos – there’s nothing wrong with photos.
So, we work with photos of people that we have a warm relationship with and try to see them as – like one of the exercises that we do in this program is developing a caring attitude, “You’re a human being and have feelings just as I do. The mood that you’re in is going to affect your feelings, just as the mood that I’m in is going to affect my feelings. The way that I treat you is going to affect your mood and affect your feelings, just as the way that you treat me affects my feelings. So I respect you as a human being, I take seriously your feelings and in that sense I care about you. I care about how I treat you.”
This is very important as a basis for ethical discipline. It’s the name of a whole chapter that Shantideva has and he has two chapters on ethical self-discipline, this is the first chapter, and the title of it, the Tibetan word means this caring attitude. On that basis, then, we restrain from hurting others because we take seriously them, their feelings, and the fact that our behavior has an effect on them and we try to treat them nicely as much as possible.
So first you look at people that you have a warm relationship with, a picture of them, somebody, “You’re a human being, you have feelings just as I do,” this type of thing. And then we look at photos from a magazine, of strangers, “You’re a human being too and you have feelings just as I do.” This is very important if we’re doing any type of work with customers, either in a store or in some sort of profession in which we’re dealing with people. And everybody who comes to us, “They’re a human being, they have feelings that can get hurt depending on how we treat them, just as the way they treat me is going to affect my feelings.” And so we work with pictures of strangers.
Then we work with somebody that we have a difficult relationship with, somebody that we dislike, “They’re a human being too; they also have feelings just as I do.” Then we work with a circle and look at each other, “You’re a human being, you’re a human being, you’re a human being, you’re a human being,” look at everybody seriously in terms of a human being with feelings, “and how I treat you, if I ignore you, if I am abrupt with you, if I’m rude with you, that’s going to make you feel not so good, make you feel bad, just as it would make me feel very uncomfortable.”
Then we work with one to one, which is even more powerful. That’s the second phase. The third phase is working with ourselves. We look in a mirror, “I’m a human being, I have feelings just as anybody else does and the way that I treat myself is going to affect how I feel. If I overwork, if I don’t know when to take a rest, that’s going to affect my mood, that’s going to affect my interaction with others, just as it would anybody else.” In this way we take ourselves seriously and we take the effect of our behavior on ourselves seriously.
Then we try that without a mirror; and then we work with pictures of ourself from the past, especially from difficult periods in the past, “I was a human being then and I had feelings, I was trying my best. And just as if the person that I will become ten years from now looks back at me now and is ashamed of me and thinks, ‘Oh, I was a terrible person then,’ that would really hurt me, I’m trying my best. So similarly that person that I was ten years ago wouldn’t want me to be ashamed of them now either, or uncomfortable, or unable to deal with who I was then.”
In this way we apply this type of meditation that deals with emotions, that deals with our attitude toward ourselves, toward others in a more connected way to actual people. Then that’s a constructive way of working with emotions, rather than just sitting and indulging, “Ah, everything is so nice, may everybody be happy, la-di-da,” this type of thing.
Or people who like to work with pure lands, “Ah, I’d like to go to a pure land,” and “Everything is going to be so wonderful,” and “It’s paradise,” and “It’s so nice,” “Bambi and everybody is around there,” and it sort of makes you feel good to think about that and to imagine that, and so you do all these complex practices to go to a pure land. That can be a very immature way of dealing with the whole pure land teachings, looking at it as some sort of paradise, an ideal fairyland or something like that.
But again, a more mature way of dealing with that is to look, “Well, what do you actually do in a pure land?” You don’t just hang out by the swimming pool in the pure land and play cards with your friends. But the whole point of a pure land is that you don’t have to deal with all the drags of our usual samsara and samsaric body and samsaric lives. You don’t have to worry about food and a place to stay and working and paying taxes and getting sick and all this sort of stuff that occupies so much of our time and prevents us from engaging full time in Dharma activity.
It’s pure of all of that, and so the only thing that you do there is practice all the time and work really very hard in practice without having to deal with any of these other distractions. And so you think, “Wow, that would be really fantastic, how wonderful it would be; not just out of laziness that I don’t have to work and I don’t have to cook and clean the house and that sort of stuff. But how wonderful that would be to be able to devote all my time and energy without having to deal with all this samsaric stuff that we have to do all the time – taking care of this body and taking care of all the things that that entails.”
And so one develops a more emotional approach – that gets into the devotional approach as well, I suppose – toward these pure land practices. So like that, rather than the “La-di-da, how wonderful it’ll be in paradise,” like that, all the various aspects of dealing with emotions in the Dharma can be done in a much more mature type of way.
The word emotion, it’s a funny word – there’s feeling there as well, and feeling, when we talk about feelings, in English at least, that includes both the spectrum of feeling happy or sad, as well as our emotional feelings. And I think that aspect of feeling which deals with feeling happy or sad, that also is something which can be approached in a mature or immature type of way. The immature type of way is that you just want to feel happy. You come to the center and you feel happy and you chant and you meditate on love and everybody loves each other and it’s so wonderful and we’ll all be happy.
But often we have blocks in terms of feeling sad or feeling suffering. Especially I’m thinking of the tonglen practice, the giving and taking practice. That giving and taking practice could be done in a very blocked sort of way, in which our feelings are blocked. You may be able to develop compassion and you may be able to develop love, “May you be free of the problem and may you have happiness” – that might be sincere and that we might actually feel on an emotional level, but how about feeling the suffering when we take on the suffering of somebody else?
And how about actually feeling joy when we give joy to somebody else? That’s more challenging and that is very important to feel. Otherwise again it just becomes a bit of a visualization exercise, rather than a full emotional and feeling involvement in the whole process.
I teach this in the sensitivity training, by the way, that to work with feelings and emotions without them being blocked or overwhelming requires a certain container – and I’m talking about an attitude of mind that is a container. And that container is suggested by the word “equanimity,” as is defined in Theravada and as is defined in Mahayana. In the Theravada sense, it’s described as the state of mind that is free of agitation or dullness.
If our minds are very agitated with a lot of mental wandering, with a lot of flightiness to things that either we’re attracted to, or not only that, but wandering with aversions, with worries, with tension, with busyness, anxiety, overprotectiveness, fear, these type of things, if the mind is just wandering all over the place, then we can’t really be relaxed and open enough to feel. In a sense, it makes some sort of screen; it busies our minds, so that we don’t have to feel anything.
The other aspect is dullness. If you relax too much, then you become dull, and then you don’t feel anything either, we tend off to the direction of sleepiness. But if we have the mind which is quiet and the mind which is relaxed and fresh, that acts as the container, one part of the container, for being able to actually feel something. I call that “serenity” for want of a better word.
The other aspect is, from the Mahayana definition of the word, an equanimity which is free of attachment, aversion, and indifference. If we are attached – you want something from the other person; or in dealing with our own problems, if we’re obsessed with it, obsessed with something, then it’s very difficult to feel, because we’re just involved with the emotion of attachment or the emotion of obsession with a problem of ourselves that we haven’t really dealt with and that we’re blocked in working with.
And aversion, “I don’t want to deal with it, it’s too difficult,” or “I’m afraid of it,” this type of aversion. And the indifference thing is “I’m too busy,” or “I don’t care.” So that also has to be dropped. And if one can be open and caring in that context as well, that combination of the serenity and equanimity allows for the emotions to flow. In that way we can work with emotions, like feeling happy or feeling sad.
So you imagine the problem of the other person and then you have to have what’s called “sympathy.” Sympathy is a combination of things: empathy is there – you have to be able to empathize with what the other person is feeling, which means you have to be interested in what the other person is feeling. If you’re not interested, you don’t care. You have to be interested for being able to empathize. Even if we can’t really imagine what the pain of a cancer would be like, we’ve had some intense pain in our lives, most of us, so it gives us some idea of what it might be like.
Then compassion, “May you be free of it,” and then a willingness to actually get involved, to actually feel it. Then you imagine taking it on and actually feel what the other person is feeling, or try to imagine what the other person is feeling. And when we feel that, then you sort of let that settle. It’s like we are a great ocean and the fear, the pain, and so on is like a ripple on the top of the ocean, a little wave in the middle of the ocean and it doesn’t disturb the depths of the ocean, but we feel it.
And then, once we feel it a little bit, then you let that slowly, naturally quiet down. When you’re able to let it quiet down, then as you go deeper and deeper and deeper, you’re able to access – especially in terms of having this container attitude – able to access a very, very deep level of the subtle joy of the mind, which is open, which is relaxed. It’s not a “whoopee, jump up in the air and dance” type of joy, but that quiet calm joy. And that’s the basis for feeling happiness and giving that to others.
It’s that inner joy of peace of mind that wasn’t afraid to feel the suffering, but is not destroyed by that suffering. And then, when you have the wish for the other person to be happy, in thinking of “May they be happy,” you think in terms of happiness. You try to feel happiness and that enhances that inner quiet type of joy. And then there is a natural feeling of happiness which arises, and that we give to others, not just an imaginary happiness.
I think this is a good example, an illustration of how we put together many, many different facets of the teachings and apply them in one practice like tonglen that we might have learned in a very introductory level, which is fine for the introductory level. But one needs to go deeper and deeper, so that if we’re really an emotional type of person and this is something which is going to be a path that’s very conducive for our development, we can work with it in a mature type of way, not just indulging the feeling, but actually working with it in a structured type of manner. So, that’s the emotional approach.
The Devotional Approach
So we have the intellectual approach, we have the emotional approach, and then there’s the devotional approach. And a devotional approach can also be followed in an immature or a mature manner. An immature manner would be, “Oh, how wonderful the Buddha is, how wonderful the Buddha-figures, the yidams, the Tara. Oh, how wonderful the teacher is. And how lowly I am in comparison.” We’re this little worm down here, and there are the Buddhas and the gurus and all these various figures up there and we’re just going to worship them, ask for their help, like asking for help from saints, “Saint Tara, Holy Mother, help me!”
And the immature aspect of that is that we don’t take responsibility ourselves, but we just pray to the various Buddhas and do our rituals. And if we can do our rituals perfectly and know when to ring the bell and when to play the drum and how to make this mudra and that mudra and so on and set up the altar perfectly and have each water bowl exactly one rice grain apart – because if it’s two rice grains apart, we go to hell, but one rice grain apart – that we followed all this in a very devotional, devout type of way, then we’re going to be saved. That is a fairly immature way of approaching the Dharma if we’re a devotional type.
The mature way of following a devotional approach would be to gain inspiration from the ritual. Rituals can be very uplifting, very inspiring if they’re done with some understanding of what we’re doing. We might follow a ritual type of practice every day and we can get a great deal of benefit from that in the sense that it gives a certain stability to our lives. Because each day, no matter how chaotic our day might be, our schedule, we’re so busy and so many things to do, but there’s one part of the day which is sacred, in a sense. And that part of the day is there as a stabilizing factor, it provides continuity through the ups and downs of our daily lives and that can be very inspiring.
Also it can be very inspiring to follow rituals that we know have been done over the centuries, so we have the feeling of connectedness with a tradition – this we find in all religions. When you follow some type of ritual, you feel part of a community of other people who are doing the same thing. There is nothing to be pooh-poohed about that. These are definite benefits that one gains from the devotional, ritualistic type of practice. The point is, however, that one looks at it as an instrument; it’s not an end in itself.
The whole purpose of the ritual is to gain inspiration from it. It’s to use it as a context within which we do various meditation practices. It’s not just being done to show how good we are, because our teacher told us to do it every day and so we do it every day in a very devoted type of way, but just in a mechanical sort of way, keeping the tradition because in a sense it’s our duty or something like that, or even worse, because we feel that if we didn’t do it, we would be guilty, we would be bad students, bad people. So that devotional side also has these two aspects, immature and mature.
Balancing the Three Approaches
Although we can speak about these three types of approaches and also we can recognize within ourselves which one might be dominant or predominant, whatever the word is, nevertheless I think it’s very important to try to follow some sort of combination and balance of the three. Again that goes back to this networking principle that I was speaking of earlier, that all the different aspects of the teachings fit together, so likewise all the different approaches fit together.
And if we just follow one, without really trying to integrate to a certain extent the others, then our practice is deficient in certain ways; we’re missing out on benefits that we can gain. So we need to understand, this is the intellectual side, we need to feel on an emotional level, and we also need to get inspiration and feel inspired, so that gives us the energy – that’s what inspiration is, it’s the energy that propels us and uplifts us along the path.
Now we could ask, “Well, what is the necessity for this? Can you explain a little bit more clearly?” For an emotional person it is important to learn intellectually, because sometimes you don’t feel like loving, you don’t feel like it. So if you don’t feel like it, you don’t do any type of practice, like for instance on love. Whereas if we have an intellectual approach as well, then we can use a line of reasoning.
It’s sort of like an intellectual approach and an intuitive approach, there are these two approaches in meditation. The intellectual one is to build things up by a line of reasoning, like the seven-part cause and effect thing of “equanimity; and everybody’s been my mother in previous lives; and everybody’s been kind to me...” and you build up, so that you try to feel something. The other way is to quiet down. That’s the more intuitive thing, that if we can just quiet down sufficiently – and this is more like a mahamudra approach or a Zen approach – quiet down, then we’ll get in touch with the love that is there as part of Buddha-nature or whatever.
So we have these two type of approaches. But sometimes you can’t quiet down, or you don’t feel like it, so you need to build up with some sort of line of reasoning, “You’re a human being just like me, you have feelings just as I do...” that’s an intellectual type of process, a line of reasoning. And that is important to be able to supplement what we have. Also from the other side, it’s very easy to build up a line of reasoning but not feel anything. And that also, one has to be careful to supplement the quieting down type of meditations to that, so that one starts to experience something a little bit more naturally arising, that isn’t sort of artificially created.
Also I think it’s important for the emotional person to realize that even if something is artificially created, so-called, that doesn’t mean that it is not helpful. It’s very unrealistic to imagine that feelings of love, compassion, all these things are going to be a hundred percent sincere. It’s not. It’s very interesting, if you analyze it, as His Holiness says, our motivation is always going to be mixed. There’s always going to be some sort of ego-grasping, some sort of selfishness that’s there.
So if you ask, from a Dharma point of view, “Well, what’s the boundary? When does that go away? When is it pure?” Well, it’s only when you achieve liberation from samsara, become an arhat, reaching the eighth bhumi bodhisattva stage, that you’re rid of self-grasping. So always the motivation is going to be mixed with that to a certain degree before that. Now, that’s a very helpful realization to have, because then we can be more realistic, not beating ourselves, “I have to be perfect now,” when that really is beyond our abilities, beyond our levels.
And so we work with a line of reasoning, “Why should I feel love toward anyone?” “OK, so here is a reason,” so we work with that. And then in the beginning you work it up and you don’t actually feel anything. That happens. So again, there’s a block in the feelings. You have to quiet down, like I was explaining with the serenity and equanimity, get rid of the agitation, get rid of the dullness, get rid of the attraction and aversion and indifference and being too busy and the fear. So you combine that quieting down type of approach with the line of reasoning. So, we work like that. For the intellectual one, as I said, one needs that emotional side, because that tightness of the mind, the tightness on the emotions needs to be loosened.
And for the non-devotional type – well, sometimes you need that energy to pick you up, to inspire you when that energy is feeling low in terms of practice. Even if we tend to be predominately intellectual and say, “Ah, rituals, that’s just ritual and nothing more, that’s not the real profound stuff. I don’t want to just spend all my time ringing a bell and waving a dorje and singing. I’m not coming to a Dharma center for choir practice, but I want to do the real stuff.” And then of course the other extreme is thinking that the ritual is the real stuff, and the learning, the actual working with emotions is not. But for the non-devotional type we need very much a source of inspiration.
That source of inspiration, on the one hand, is the spiritual teacher. The main purpose of the relation with a spiritual teacher is to gain inspiration. A regular teacher can answer questions, for example, and a therapist can work with your emotions, but inspiration from a living example, that’s something that you get from a spiritual teacher. That’s what gives you the energy.
It’s the root of the path, as they say in the lam-rim. People often get confused with the image, because a plant doesn’t start from the root; a plant starts with a seed. It comes from a seed, but the root of the plant is the thing that anchors it in the ground and through which the plant receives its sustenance. So likewise the relation with a spiritual teacher, that deep relation with a spiritual teacher, isn’t what starts you on the path, but it’s what roots you and gives you the inspiration to grow, like a plant grows.
Also for the emotional type, ritual is important, because it gives expression and form to the feeling. Sometimes we have all this emotion of love and so on, but it just becomes sloppy. You don’t know what to do with it, it just sort of gushes. And that needs to have a form of expression, so that it can actually be channeled and used in terms of, for instance, lights going out and actually benefiting others and bringing them happiness and so on. Well, that gives a form in a ritual that the emotion can take.
Or likewise we may feel tremendous love and appreciation for the spiritual teacher, but when you actually do the Lama Chopa, the Guru Puja, then you go through verse by verse thinking of the qualities, thinking of the benefits that we gain from the teacher, and so on. So it gives a form in which we can actually work with these feelings in a positive and constructive type of way, rather than just feeling them and nothing else.
And for a devotional type, when we can’t understand what’s happening in life, then you need more than just comfort and uplifting from a ritual. We need to understand what’s going on, and so that intellectual approach is very helpful there.
For the intellectual person, as I was saying before, the ritual gives regularity, gives a sense of continuity. And also doing a ritual before we do intensive study helps to lower our arrogance. And that’s very important in terms of our minds being more open for understanding and understanding clearly, rather than, “I know everything,” or “I have to know everything,” “I paid my money, so give me all the information as much as you can.”
I know I found that very helpful. When I first went to India back in 1969, I was coming from a super-intellectual background at Harvard Graduate School. And I became involved with tantrapractice after a while; I took some initiations, some empowerments and then was doing a daily practice of recitation of certain sadhanas in Tibetan. Nothing was translated at the time, nothing was available and it was beyond my level of Tibetan and my experience to be able to really translate them and get any meaning out of the sadhanas. And I found that extremely, extremely helpful for lowering my arrogance.
Because I came with quite a lot of baggage of arrogance to India and here it was where I have this attitude, “I’m not going to do something that I don’t understand.” That could be a big obstacle, a big obstacle, because what level of understanding does it have to be before I will deign to practice this primitive ritual? But doing it, and just doing it with a certain confidence, “Eventually I’ll understand what’s going on; and eventually when I’m ready and when I have the language skills, then I’ll be able to understand. When I have the skills from a little bit of experience with Dharma, then my teachers will explain it to me.”
That was very important, very important in my own development. Because then you really start to work with patience, you really start to work with perseverance. Because even if we have some sort of translation, usually they’re quite puzzling, “What does it actually mean?” And even if we get some explanation of it, that also is a bit puzzling. In fact that actually is the method. The method is to explain things vaguely on purpose.
It’s very funny, when you read the root texts, the texts by Nagarjuna and various great masters, they’re completely vague. They’re filled with pronouns that don’t seem to have any reference – this’s and that’s – my university English professor would really put a big fuss about, “It’s not clear what your reference is.” So they’re filled with this’s and that’s. And Serkong Rinpoche used to say, “Don’t think that Nagarjuna was incapable of writing a clear text, that he was a bad writer. He and the other great masters wrote the texts in this manner on purpose.”
There are several purposes here. One is that when the text is filled with this’s and that’s, well that means that each of these this’s and that’s has many, many different levels of meaning and interpretation, and so as you learn it, then you can add on to this framework. That’s why it’s a root, it’s called a root text, because it’s a root from which everything grows. On that, all your understanding is going to fit, in a sense, so as you recite it, you fill in all the meaning.
This is one of the big problems of being a translator from a Western background, we feel very uncomfortable, at least some of us feel very uncomfortable writing texts that are filled with this’s and that’s; you want to fill it in with what it means. And then you fill it in just according to one commentary tradition, and then it doesn’t act as a root text anymore, because it doesn’t fit with any other commentary. And the commentaries and their interpretations are extremely different. And then you get a text that could be understood on a Chittamatra level, it could be understood on a Svatantrika level, it could be understood on a Prasangika level – these different Indian tenet systems – and that becomes really problematic if you don’t leave it vague and open.
So that’s one reason for it being like that. The other reason is that, this is particularly true in tantra, that in a sense it is an automatic screening system. You don’t want to explain things too clearly, because then people will not value the teachings. And for those for whom it’s enough, it’s enough. But those who are really, really interested, they’re going to come back and they’re going to say, “Could you explain this more?” And then you explain it a little bit more. And for some people that’ll be enough... Like this that method develops patience and perseverance.
The whole training in Dharma is not just a training in information, transferring information, and then we have that information. But the process is one of developing ourselves emotionally as well in terms of our whole personality. And doing a ritual or reciting a text or something like that without really understanding the meaning, or only having a very general idea of the meaning, can be very helpful in that process of developing our personalities. So we need to understand that.
Also, if we’re mature, then a relationship with a spiritual teacher can help us to develop all three of these areas. A teacher would be intellectually challenging, a teacher would also be emotionally moving, it moves our emotions to be with the teacher, and also is inspiring. So a teacher, a spiritual teacher, I’m speaking specifically about a well-qualified teacher, can be a source that helps us to develop all three approaches in a balanced way.
But we have to watch out for it just being an intellectual dueling, arguing with the teacher, that you just get into debating. That would be the immature intellectual approach, that you’re just constantly dueling. Or you fall in love with the teacher; that would be the immature emotional approach. Or you become mindlessly devotional, “Oh guru, guru, tell me what to do.” We lose all responsibility. That we have to avoid with the spiritual teacher.
And of course this also has to be guided by the teacher as well; it’s always an interaction, that the teacher doesn’t allow for this mindless devotion by putting themselves up on a throne, especially Western gurus, I find, playing the whole “great white guru” trip. This is very dangerous. That encourages a mindless devotionalism. Or flirting with students, that encourages love. Or just being aggressively intellectual and cold, not having any personal relation with the students, just sort of coming in, lecture, and “bye-bye” and go to your room. That tends to lead toward just that intellectual dueling type of relationship.