In the West, the majority of aspiring Buddhists wish to actively participate in spiritual practices, but lack sufficient time to undertake the full range of traditional practices. They are people with families, careers and social lives who are nonetheless devoted to the teachings and wish to follow the spiritual path. This is a big challenge.
Sometimes traditional teachers from Asia do not sufficiently appreciate this point, and so they make a distinction between what they regard as "spiritual practice" on the one hand, and "everyday life" on the other.
According to this traditional approach, specific Dharma practices such as meditation, ritual, attending centers, and making offerings are considered to be spiritual activities, while the rest of life, such as being at home with the family, going to work, and social interaction are regarded as mere worldly activities. I once heard a very venerable lama, when asked by one of his Western disciples, "I have a family, children, and a job, so I don't have much time for spiritual practice, what should I do?" replied, "Never mind, when your children are grown up you can take early retirement, and then you can start to practice."
This idea that only formal sitting, doing prostrations, going to the temple, listening to Dharma teachings, and reading religious books constitute practice, and the rest of the day is so much ballast, can cause us to feel very frustrated with our lives. We may end up resenting our families and our work, always dreaming of a time when we will he free to do "actual practice." We might spend the best part of our lives resenting those very circumstances which could provide us with the most profound means of progressing on the spiritual path.
The Key in Busy Lives
There are changes happening now, not in the practices themselves nor in the basic underlying philosophy, but in the emphasis. There is ample precedent to be found in Zen Buddhism, which teaches that everything we do, provided it is done with total awareness, is spiritual activity. On the other hand, if we perform an action distractedly, with only half our attention, it becomes just another worldly activity. It doesn't matter what it is. One could he a great master meditating upon a high throne, but unless one is present and conscious in the moment, it is meaningless to sit there. On the other hand, one might be sweeping leaves, chopping vegetables or cleaning toilets, and provided one maintains complete attention, all these activities become spiritual practices. That's why in films about Zen monasteries everything is done with such remarkable inner poise, with an air of being completely present in the moment.
Therein lies the key for those of us who have busy lives. We can convert actions we normally regard as routine, dull, and spiritually meaningless into karma practice, and transform our entire lives in the process. There are two separate aspects to bringing about this transformation, although they do converge. One is to create inner space. This is an inner centeredness, inner silence, inner clarity, which enables us to begin seeing things more as they really are and not how we normally interpret them. The other aspect is learning to open up our hearts.
It's relatively easy to sit on our cushion and think, "May all sentient beings be well and happy," and send out thoughts of loving-kindness to all those little sentient beings out there on the horizon somewhere! Then somebody comes in and tells us there is a telephone call and we answer crossly, "Go away. I'm doing my loving-kindness meditation."
Developing Loving-Kindness with our Family
The best place for us to begin our Dharma practice is with our family. We have the strongest karmic connections with family members; therefore, we have a great responsibility for developing our relationships with them. If we cannot develop loving-kindness towards our family, why even talk about other beings. If we really want to open up our heart, it has to be to those directly connected to us, such as our partners, children, parents, and siblings. This is always a difficult task, because we need to overcome deeply entrenched behavioral patterns.
I think this can be especially challenging with couples. Sometimes I think it would be a good idea to have a tape recorder or even a video camera to record how couples relate to each other, so they could see and hear themselves interacting later on. He says this, she says that, every time, and each time the responses are so unskillful. They get locked into a pattern. They cause pain to themselves and to those around them, including their children, and they can't get out.
Putting loving-kindness into practice really helps loosen the tight patterns we have developed over many years. It's sometimes a very good idea just to close our eyes, then open them and look at the person in front of us -- especially if it's someone we know very well, like our partner, our child or our parents -- and really try to see them as if for the first time. This may help us to appreciate their good qualities, which will then aid us in developing loving-kindness for them.
Patience: The Antidote to Anger
Patience is the antidote to anger. From a Dharma perspective, patience is considered extremely important. The Buddha praised it as the greatest austerity. We must develop this wonderful, wide, expansive quality. It has nothing to do with suppressing or repressing or anything like that; rather, it's about developing an open heart.
In order to develop this, we need to have contact with people who annoy us. You see, when people are being loving and kind towards us, saying the things we want to hear and doing all the things we want them to do, it may feel great but we don't learn anything. It's very easy to love people who are lovable. The real test comes with people who are being absolutely obnoxious!
I'll tell you a story. Have any of you ever heard of Saint Therese of Lisieux? She is sometimes called the "Little Flower." For those of you who haven't, she was a girl from a middle-class French family living in Normandy. She became a Carmelite nun at the age of fifteen and died of tuberculosis at the end of the nineteenth century when she was only twenty-four. She is now the patron saint of France, along with Joan of Arc. She lived in a small enclosed Carmelite nunnery with about thirty other women. Four of her sisters were also nuns in the same nunnery. Her eldest sister was the Mother Superior.
You have to try to imagine life in a contemplative order. You see only the other people in the group. You haven't chosen them. It's not like you choose all your best friends to come into the order. You go in there and then find out what you've got. You are going to sit next to the one who came before you and the one who came after you for your entire life.
You have no choice. You eat with them, sleep with them, pray with them and spend your recreation time with them. It is as if all of us here in this room were suddenly told, "This is it, folks! You are never going to see anyone else for the rest of your lives. You didn't choose each other, but here you all are." Imagine!
The Ultimate Challenge of Acceptance
Now there was one nun whom Therese absolutely could not abide. She didn't like anything about this woman -- the way she looked, the way she walked, the way she talked or the way she smelled. Therese was quite fastidious. The nuns used to have silent contemplation in the morning in a big stone chapel, where all the sounds reverberated. This nun used to sit in front of Therese and make strange clicking noises. The noises weren't rhythmic, so she never knew when the next click was going to happen. She was supposed to be contemplating, but instead she would he drenched in cold sweat, just waiting for the next click to come.
Therese knew that she would be around her for the rest of her life and that the woman was never going to change. Eventually, she realized that it was no use trying to escape by slipping down a corridor whenever she saw the woman approaching. Obviously something about her was pleasing to God, because he had called on her to become a bride of Christ.
She decided there must he something beautiful about this nun which she was unable to see. She realized that, as this woman was not going to change, the only thing that could change would be Therese herself. So, instead of nursing her aversion or avoiding the woman, she began to go out of her way to meet her and to be as charming to her as if she were her closest friend.
She began to make her little presents, and to anticipate the woman's needs. She always gave her her very nicest smile, right from her heart. She did everything she possibly could to treat this woman as though she were her most beloved friend. One day the woman said to her, "I really don't know why you love me so much." Therese thought, "If you only knew!"
Through acting in this way, Therese became genuinely fond of this woman. She was no longer a problem to her, but nothing about the woman had actually changed. I am sure she still sat there clicking away, oblivious. Yet everything had changed. The problem had been surmounted, and for Therese there was a great deal of inner growth. She didn't perform any great miracles. She didn't have any great visions. She did something very simple, which we are all capable of doing -- she changed her attitude. We cannot transform the world, but we can transform our mind. And when we transform our mind, to and behold, the entire world is transformed!
Changing Our Attitude
Shantideva, the seventh-century Indian scholar, wrote that the earth is full of pebbles, sharp rocks and thistles. So how can we avoid stubbing our toes? Are we going to carpet the whole earth? No one is rich enough to carpet the entire earth wall to wall. But if we take a piece of leather and apply it to the bottom of our soles as sandals or shoes, we can walk everywhere.
We don't need to change the whole world and all the people in it to our specifications. There are billions of people out there but only one "me." How can I expect them all to do exactly what I want? But we don't need that. All we need do is change our attitude. We can consider the persons who annoy us and cause us the greatest problems as our greatest friends. They are the ones who help us to learn and to transform.
Once when I was in South India, I went to see an astrologer and told him, "I have two choices. Either I can go back into retreat or I can start a nunnery. What should I do?" He looked at me and said, "If you go back into retreat, it will be very peaceful, very harmonious, very successful, and everything will be fine. If you start a nunnery, there will be lots of conflicts, lots of problems, lots of difficulties, but both are good, so you decide." I thought, "Back into retreat, quick!"
Our Challenges Are Our Greatest Helpers
Then I met a Catholic priest and mentioned it to him. He said, "It's obvious. You start the nunnery. What is the use of always seeking tranquility and avoiding challenges.'" He said we are like rough pieces of wood. Trying to smooth our ragged edges down with velvet and silk won't work. We need sandpaper. The people who annoy us are our sandpaper. They are going to make us smooth. If we regard those who are extremely irritating as our greatest helpers on the path, we can learn a lot. They cease to be our problems and instead become our challenges.
A tenth-century Bengali pandita named Palden Atisha reintroduced Buddhism into Tibet. He had a servant who was really awful. He was abusive to Atisha, disobedient, and generally a big problem. The Tibetans asked Atisha what he was doing with such an awful guy who was so completely obnoxious. They said, "Send him back. We'll take care of you." Atisha replied, "What are you talking about? He is my greatest teacher of patience. He is the most precious person around me!"
Patience does not mean suppression, and it doesn't mean bottling up our anger or turning it in on ourselves in the form of self-blame. It means having a mind which sees everything that happens as the result of causes and conditions we have set in motion at some time in this or past lives. Who knows what our relationship has been with someone who is causing us difficulties now? Who knows what we may have done to him in another life! If we respond to such people with retaliation, we are just locking ourselves into that same cycle. We are going to have to keep replaying this part of the movie again and again in this and future lifetimes. The only way to break out of the cycle is by changing our attitude.
When the Communists took over Tibet, they imprisoned many monks, nuns, and lamas. These people had done nothing wrong. They were merely there at the time. Some were imprisoned in Chinese labor camps for twenty or thirty years and are only now being released. A while back, I met a monk who had been imprisoned for twenty-five years. He had been tortured and treated badly, and his body was pretty much a wreck. But his mind! When you looked into his eyes, far from seeing bitterness, brokenness, or hatred in them, you could see that they were glowing. He looked as though he had just spent twenty-five years in retreat!
All he talked about was his gratitude to the Chinese. They had really helped him develop overwhelming love and compassion towards those who caused him harm. He said, "Without them I would have just continued mouthing platitudes." But because of his imprisonment, he had had to draw on his inner strength. In such circumstances, you either go under or you surmount. When he emerged from prison, he felt nothing but love and understanding towards his captors.
Transforming Negative Occurrences
Once I read a book by Jack London. I can't remember the title. It was called something about the stars. (Editor's Note: The Star Rover by Jack London.) It was a story about a college professor who had murdered his wife and was in San Quentin prison. The prison guards did not like this guy at all. He was too intelligent. So they did everything they could to harass him. One of the things they did was to bind people in very rigid canvas sacking and pull it tight so that they could hardly move or breathe, and their whole body would feel crushed. If anyone stayed in this for more than forty-eight hours, they died.
They would continually put the professor in this for twenty-four or thirty hours at a time. While he was wrapped up like this, because the pain was unendurable, he began to have out-of-body experiences. Eventually he began to go through past lives. Then he saw his interrelationships in past lives with the people who were tormenting him. At the end of the book he was about to he hanged, but he felt nothing but love and understanding towards his tormentors. He really understood why they were doing what they were doing. He felt their inner unhappiness, confusion, and anger which were creating the scenario.
In our own modest way, we too must develop the ability to transform negative occurrences and take them on the path. We learn much more from our pain than from our pleasures. This doesn't mean we have to go out and look for pain -- far from it. But when pain comes to us, in whatever form, instead of resenting it and creating more pain, we can see it as a great opportunity to grow -- to get out of our normal thinking patterns, such as, "He doesn't like me, so I'm not going to like him." We can begin to transcend all that and use this method to open up the heart.
The Buddha once said, "If somebody gives you a gift and you don't accept it, to whom does the gift belong?" The disciples answered, "It belongs to the person who gave it." Then the Buddha said, "Well, I do not accept your verbal abuse. So its yours." We don't have to accept it. We can make our minds like a vast open space. If you throw mud into open space, it doesn't sully the space. It only sullies the hand of the person who threw it. This is why it is so important to develop patience and learn how to transform negative events and negative people into a positive spiritual response.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Snow Lion Publications. ©2002. www.snowlionpub.com
Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings On Practical Buddhism
by Tenzin Palmo.
About the Author
TENZIN PALMO was born in London in 1943. She traveled to India when she was 20, met her teacher, and in 1964 was one of the first Western women to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. After twelve years of study and doing frequent retreats during the long Himalayan winter months, she sought complete seclusion and better conditions. She found a nearby cave, where she stayed and practiced for another twelve years. Today Tenzin Palmo lives in Tashi Jong, Himachal Pradesh in northern India, where she has established Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery for young women from Tibet and the Himalayan border regions. She frequently teaches around the world.