A Zen master had a faithful but very naive student who regarded him as a living buddha. One day the master accidentally sat down on a needle. He screamed “Ouch!” and jumped into the air. The student instantly lost all his faith and left, saying how disappointed he was to find that his master was not fully enlightened. Otherwise, he thought, how could he jump up and scream out loud like that? The master was sad when he realized his student had left, and said: “Alas, poor man! If only he had known that in reality neither I, nor the needle, nor the ‘ouch’ really existed.”
Remember the example of an old cow:
She’s content to sleep in a barn.
You have to eat, sleep and shit—
Beyond that is none of your business.
Do what you have to do
And keep yourself to yourself.
and London, 1972.)
Of all the practices I know, the practice of Tonglen, Tibetan for “giving and receiving,” is one of the most useful and powerful. When you feel yourself locked in upon yourself, Tonglen opens you to the truth of the suffering of others; when your heart is blocked, it destroys those forces that are obstructing it; and when you feel estranged from the person who is in pain before you, or bitter or despairing, it helps you to find within yourself and then to reveal the loving, expansive radiance of your own true nature. No other practice I know is as effective in destroying the self-grasping, self-cherishing, self-absorption of the ego, which is the root of all our suffering and all hard-heartedness.
Put very simply, the Tonglen practice of giving and receiving is to take on the suffering and pain of others and give to them your happiness, well-being, and peace of mind.
I know very well from my own experience how hard it is to imagine taking on the sufferings of others, and especially those of sick and dying people, without first building in yourself a strength and confidence of compassion. It is this strength and this confidence that will give your practice the power to transmute the suffering of others.
This is why I always recommend that you begin the Tonglen practice for others by first practicing it on yourself. Before you can send out love and compassion to others, you must uncover, deepen, create, and strengthen them in yourself, and heal yourself of any reticence or distress or anger or fear that might create an obstacle to practicing Tonglen wholeheartedly.
To integrate meditation in action is the whole ground and point and purpose of meditation. The violence and stress and the challenges and distractions of this modern life make this integration urgently necessary.
How do we achieve this integration, this permeation of everyday life with the calm humor and spacious detachment of meditation? There is no substitute for regular practice, for only through real practice will we begin to taste unbrokenly the calm of our nature of mind and so be able to sustain the experience of it in our everyday lives.
If you really wish to achieve this, what you need to do is practice not just as occasional medicine or therapy but as if it were your daily sustenance or food.
As we follow the teachings and as we practice, we will inevitably discover certain truths about ourselves that stand out prominently: There are places where we always get stuck; there are habitual patterns and strategies that are the legacy of negative karma, which we continuously repeat and reinforce; there are particular ways of seeing things—those tired old explanations of ourselves and the world around us—that are quite mistaken yet which we hold onto as authentic, and so distort our whole view of reality.
When we persevere on the spiritual path, and examine ourselves honestly, it begins to dawn on us more and more that our perceptions are nothing more than a web of illusions. Simply to acknowledge our confusion, even though we cannot accept it completely, can bring some light of understanding and spark off in us a new process, a process of healing.
If you go on searching all the time, the searching itself becomes an obsession and takes you over. You become a spiritual tourist, bustling about and never getting anywhere. As Patrul Rinpoche says: “You leave your elephant at home and look for its footprints in the forest.” Following one teaching is not a way of confining you or jealously monopolizing you. It’s a compassionate and practical way of keeping you centered and always on your path, despite all the obstacles that you, and the world, will inevitably present.
At the moment of death, there are two things that count: whatever we have done in our lives, and what state of mind we are in at that very moment. Even if we have accumulated a lot of negative karma, if we are able to make a real change of heart at the moment of death, it can decisively influence our future, and transform our karma, for the moment of death is an exceptionally powerful opportunity to purify karma.
A meditation technique used a great deal in Tibetan Buddhism is uniting the mind with the sound of a mantra. The definition of mantra is “that which protects the mind.” That which protects the mind from negativity, or which protects you from your own mind, is mantra.
When you are nervous, disoriented, or emotionally fragile, inspired chanting or reciting of a mantra can change the state of your mind completely, by transforming its energy and atmosphere. How is this possible? Mantra is the essence of sound, the embodiment of the truth in the form of sound. Each syllable is impregnated with spiritual power, condenses a deep spiritual truth, and vibrates with the blessing of the speech of the buddhas.
It is also said that the mind rides on the subtle energy of the breath, the prana, which moves through and purifies the subtle channels of the body. So when you chant a mantra, you are charging your breath and energy with the energy of the mantra, and so working directly on your mind and your subtle body.
Tibetans say: “Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Péma Siddhi Hung,” which is the mantra of Padmasambhava, the mantra of all the buddhas, masters, and realized beings, and is uniquely powerful for peace, for healing, for transformation, and for protection in this violent, chaotic age.
Recite the mantra quietly, with deep attention, and let your breath, the mantra, and your awareness slowly become one. Or chant it in an inspiring way, then rest in the profound silence that sometimes follows.