It's one of the paradoxes of spiritual practice: we need a path to travel where we already are. SAKYONG MIPHAM RINPOCHE explains how to create the causes and conditions for realizing the enlightened nature we already possess.
Each time I leave a meditation retreat, I'm struck by the level of speed and stress in our environment. I'm not just talking about Westerners. Ther first time I went to Tibet, life there was very simple, but when I returned three years later, cell phones were ringing and the distraction was visible, even while I was conducting ceremonies. Something else I've noticed lately is that we're bombarded with bad news. But the people I admire have always focused on the good news: that we have in our mind wisdom, compassion, and all the other elements of enlightenment.
While living in stressful times does not ultimately affect our enlightened qualities, it does demand that we become more engaged in awakening them. To transform the environment, we must begin with our mind. We can't expect everyone else to change first. As my father, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was fond of saying, "It's easier to put on a pair of shoes than to wrap the earth in leather." The process of putting on a pair of shoes is the path of enlightenment.
On the ultimate level, enlightenment is already here, but on the relative level we need to engineer its causes and conditions. The mind is a neutral situation, like a cotton sheet that we can dye any color we want, but unless we take hold of it, karmic tendencies--whatever habits we've ingrained in the past--will just take over. The practice of the path is slowly orienting that white cloth and coloring it the way we want. The path consists of three elements: view, meditation, and activity.
View is our orientation, and how we orient our life is intimately connected with our motivation. Traditionally, the Buddhist teachings list three kinds of motivation: small, medium, and large. These levels of motivation describe how we evolve on the path of enlightenment. When we wake up in the morning, where is our mind taking us? Whatever it is, from motivation, everything else will arise.
If our motivation is small, we will use our day getting the "stuff" we think will make us happy--food, clothing, and friends. If it's a little bigger, we might add some yoga to make us feel better. We might even expand it further to think about the karmic consequences of our actions--but it's still all about "me". With a medium-level motivation, we're no longer so fixated on our own happiness; the basis of our actions is loving-kindness and compassion. We're maturing. With the largest motivation, we put the happiness of others before our own. This is the motivation of the Buddha. If we get up in the morning and the first thought that comes to mind is, "There are so many sentient beings; even if I amd the last person on earth, I will stay here to help them," that is a very big view. Motivation is just an attitude, and it's free. So why not have a big motivation?
Why is view so important? View is how our mind is oriented, and the way our mind is oriented determines what we get. Our realization is based on the size of our view. The view of enlightenment is that we are taking charge of our own destiny. Unless we take the mind where we want it to go, the environment will take the mind where it wants it to go.
By setting our view every morning, we become very good at supporting ourselves in the second element of the path, meditation. Meditation is essentially a dualistic process in which we place our mind on an object. When we place our mind on something, the mind absorbs its qualities, because we're becoming familiar with it. This isn't particularly a spiritual truth; it's our everyday reality. For example, if the object is the anger you feel toward your spouse, you become more familiar with anger, soaking up its qualities like a sponge. In the end, that meditation leads to action. You yell at your spouse or stomp out of the room.
Meditation is a proactive approach to this reality of mind. We practice choosing the object rather than being led by whatever thoughts and emotions randomly beckon. We steep our mind in qualities that lead it forward. We begin with the stabilization technique called sharmtha, "peaceful abiding, " in which we focus on the breath. Through this practice our mind becomes settled and workable. Why is this important? We may have good intentions, but if we can't control our mind, we can never enact them. For example, we want to be compassionate but we get discursive, distracted by our mental ups and downs. Before we can cultivate compassion, we need to possess our mind. That's what we do in stabilizing meditation, where we calm down and experience the space of mind just being there. From that, our mind is much less speedy.
The mind resting peacefully has incredible implications. If you're present for the moment, you're present for your life, and you can therefore observe what's going on. If you can observe what's going on, you can make judgements, deciding where you want to go. At this point--known as the present moment--you can change your karma. You can reorient your whole path, because in terms of the future, you're in the driver's seat. You are getting more enlightened. You are waking up.
We actively reorient ourselves in contemplation, the second kind of meditation, known as vipashyana, "clear seeing." Now we take a thought as the object of our meditation. For example, we can focus on our motivation, stated very simply: "I want to meditate," "I want to develop compassion," "I want to tread on the path of enlightenment," or "I want to become enlightened, no holds barred." At other times we might contemplate a quality--generosity, exertion, discipline, or patience--that could support our motivation.
This is a practice of fabricating our enlightened qualities so that our mind naturally turns in their direction. We know that we're innately compassionate, and we also know that we don't feel right now because there's a blockage. So we contrive our buddhanature in order to reveal it. We call this relative understanding. That understanding may be brief, but we should not be discouraged . By becoming familiar with the view, we are clarifying our future.
It's one thing to have the attitude of enlightenment and another thing to act in an enlightened way, which is conduct or activity, the third element of the path. If we have proper understanding of our motivation and are getting used to our enlightened qualities, chances are we can deal with speed and stress more effectively. First we can create space in our mind to see where we are. Then we can reorient ourselves by remembering what we're doing. That allows us to say, "Sure, I'm tired and in a hurry and my phone is ringing again. Yet I can stay on the path by sticking with the ten percent of my mind that really wants to do this." The more we develop the tools to move forward on the spot, the less influence the other ninety percent of our mind will have. Our karmic tendency to drift into agitation and discursiveness will incrementally decrease. View, meditation, and conduct give us a way to remember what we're doing and why we're doing it, and then enact our own enlightenment. As we do that, we are stepping on the path. We're making progress.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is the spiritual leader of Shambhala, an internation network of Buddhist meditation and retreat centers. He is the author of Turning the Mind into an Ally and Ruling Your World.