A Balanced Approach to Buddhism

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When we come to a Dharma center, we find in the West that people come with various interests and 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 some emotional or physical difficulty, or to be trendy, or to get high like a Dharma junkie on the charisma of an entertaining teacher. Even if people start that way, they find that, eventually, they develop sincere interest in what Dharma has to offer. 

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, we 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. Each of these approaches can be followed in either a mature or an immature way from a Dharma standpoint. 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 the 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. But 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 the blockage of feelings.

The mind, of course, is very, very tricky, especially if we 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,” as they’re sometimes called, which is the ability to see the equality of things and how they fit together.

The problem with that, of course, is that we can find all sorts of patterns, many of which are fairly meaningless. The mind makes up all kinds of things, and we can come up with all sorts of nonsense theories and beautiful ways in which the teachings fit together. They may not at all have a benefit; they may, in fact, lead us astray. We can also get a little bit arrogant about that. As I say, we 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 them together and then get more into that.

There is, then, 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 and apply them. This is because, as everybody always emphasizes, we need to learn the teachings, and 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.

However, that complexity, I like to see 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. We get various pieces of it, and it’s not so obvious how they fit together; they’re taken from different parts of the puzzle, and sometimes they’re actually taken from different puzzles, it seems to us. 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 we study lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. First, we go straight through it in the traditional sequential order. Learning it in this 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 into the basic level teachings. The more other topics within the Dharma that we learn, we then try to also fit these pieces in, and they fit 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. It’s very important to remember that all the disparate pieces that we receive are all parts of a larger puzzle. Even though it might not seem like that to us, they all fit together in some sort of way.

Like with the study of the tenet systems, the four schools of Indian Buddhist tenets – sometimes they seem very weird, in a sense, because they’re so complex and almost contradictory in the ways in which they explain different theories and different topics. However, they as well fit into a network. Whether or not they were 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, which narrow in on more and more sophisticated and subtle explanations of things.

As we progress, what’s very important in that type of study is to realize that, as my teacher Serkong Rinpoche said, these systems are not stupid – Chittamatra (Mind-Only) or Vaibhashika or 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 we define Buddha, whether we look at Buddha in terms of a historical figure or we 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. In any case, they were all taught for a benefit.

What we try to do is to understand the world, to see the world through each of these pictures, these world-views, to understand really how it’s functioning and why we 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, we 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. So, we deconstruct our solid view of reality, and that’s something very profound.

If we can understand that and really work with that, then that provides a basis for going on to the Sautrantika view. That starts to differentiate mental projections from reality, from what’s called “objective reality,” and gets us thinking, “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 them.” We start to see that “OK, there’s an objective reality.” That brings us back down to earth. That’s a second step.

Then, we get into 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. We 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 we get that relationship with mind to everything, then we can modify that. In Chittamatra, they start that with just forms of physical phenomena, but then we can modify that and apply it to the question, “How does the mind itself exist?”

Then, we start to get into Madhyamaka. In terms of a relationship of mind to appearances, to what we experience, we 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. The more that we see the whole process of development in this, the more we can apply it to ourselves, and the more we can actually integrate it. It’s not just learning about these beautiful complex systems and then we try to get more pieces of information about them and are just fascinated by their 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 them, but for the sake of integrating them, for the sake of seeing how they actually apply. How can they apply to me and to all others? That, I think, is an important consequence of refuge actually. “Refuge” – I don’t like that term very much because it’s too passive. 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 in life 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 suffering and its causes are gone forever. It’s not just that one moment of suffering 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. The point is that all sufferings stop forever, so that they never recur, because the causes of them are gone, and they too are not going to recur.

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. 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. We entrust ourselves to the instructions and examples for reaching their states ourselves.

Buddhas are the ones who indicate this direction by their verbal teachings, their own realizations; the Sangha are those who help us by giving us their “enlightening influence,” it’s called. They influence us in a positive 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 really have this very strong confidence in this safe direction, then we look at it in terms of, “What does this actually mean?” and don’t just take the teaching literally.

From a Mahayana point of view, there are teachings of interpretable and definitive meanings. If something is interpretable, it needs to be interpreted, not taken literally; it’s something that is intended to take us deeper. We look for the deeper meaning. We try to see, “Where is this leading to?” with total confidence that it has to be leading to... where? To true stopping and a true path that will bring that true stopping about, a true path of mind. That’s very, very important, because sometimes if we approach things in an intellectual type of way, we lose sight of where it’s supposed to be going.

If we can keep in mind that anything that we approach, even if it’s from an intellectual point of view, is intended to lead toward that true stopping and a true path that will lead to that, and not just stopping 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 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, and it’s not dry. That’s one way of approaching the Dharma.

The Emotional Approach 

Another way of approaching the Dharma is the emotional way. That also has both an immature and mature way of dealing with the Dharma. The immature way would be to do meditation and various practices basically just to calm down and feel good. People like this meditate on love to everybody, “Oh, how wonderful it is,” and “May everybody be happy,” and become filled with all this love and emotion and so on, but often don’t actually apply any of this development of emotion to overcome 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.”

If the immature intellectual approach can degenerate into a sort of a Dharma insensitivity, this immature emotional approach can degenerate into an oversensitive way of dealing with the teachings. 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 that sort of stuff because that’s just too terrible – that’s not nice. They only want the nice bits that will make them feel good. That type of approach, if we take it to an extreme, does not really understand very much 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 anchor our emotions in reality, is to extend our meditation beyond just the realm of visualization. Restricting ourselves to visualization means we might not really connect to people, not really connect to situations. We sit and imagine sending love to all sentient beings, which is so vague, it doesn’t actually mean anything. Or we’re working abstractly with love for the hell creatures, ghosts and so on, but our love is so abstract, it just remains in our imaginations and is not applied to anybody specifically. We’re sort of in our little dream world, feeling good.

What I find is very effective is doing these types of love and compassion meditations, first of all, with our eyes open, sitting in a circle with other people, as I do with sensitivity training, this program that I worked on and developed in a book called Developing Balanced Sensitivity. There, we actually sit in a circle with a group of people and try to develop these positive attitudes toward them, towards real people. 

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, as there’s nothing wrong with photos. We work with photos of people that we have a warm relationship with and try to see in what manner we relate to them. 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. I respect you as a human being, I take your feelings seriously, 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; he has two chapters on ethical self-discipline, and this is the first chapter, and the title of it, the Tibetan word, means this caring attitude. On that basis, we refrain from hurting others because we take them, their feelings, and the fact that our behavior has an effect on them, seriously, and we try to treat them nicely as much as possible.

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Chapter 4]

First, we look at people that we have a warm relationship with, meaning a picture of them, thinking, “You’re a human being, you have feelings just as I do,” this type of thing. 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 with everybody who comes to us, we think, “They’re a human being, and they have feelings that can get hurt depending on how I treat them, just as the way they treat me is going to affect my feelings.” This is how 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, and they have feelings just as I do.” Then, we work with the circle of other participants around us 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,” looking at everybody seriously in terms of their being a human being with feelings, thinking, “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 bad, just as it would make me feel very uncomfortable.”

Then, we work 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, 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 we work with pictures of ourselves 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. 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, which deals with emotions, with our attitude toward ourselves and 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 ourselves, thinking, “Ah, everything is so nice, may everybody be happy, la-di-da.” Or people who like to work with pure lands, thinking, “Ah, I’d like to go to a pure land,” and “Everything is going to be so wonderful,” and “It’s paradise,” “It’s so nice,” “Bambi and everybody is around there,” and it makes us feel good to think about that and to imagine that, and so we 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.

Again, a more mature way of dealing with that is to ask, “Well, what do you actually do in a pure land?” We don’t just hang out by the swimming pool in a pure land and play cards with our friends. The whole point of a pure land is that we don’t have to deal with all the drags of our usual samsara and samsaric body and samsaric lives. We 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 we do there is receive teachings and practice all the time and work very hard in practice without having to deal with any of these other distractions. So we 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 I have to do all the time, taking care of this body and taking care of all the things that that entails.”

Understanding that, we develop a more mature emotional approach – which touches on the devotional approach, as well, I suppose – toward these pure land practices. Rather than a “La-di-da, how wonderful it’ll be in paradise,” type of practice, 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” is 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. I think that the aspect of feeling that deals with feeling happy or sad also is something that can be approached in a mature or immature type of way. The immature type of way is that we just want to feel happy. We come to the center, and we feel happy, and we chant and meditate on love, and everybody loves each other, and it’s so wonderful and we’ll all be happy.

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. The giving and taking practice could be done in a very blocked sort of way, in which our feelings are blocked. We may be able to develop compassion, and we may be able to develop love, thinking, “May you be free of the problem you are having and may you have happiness,” and that wish might be sincere, and we might actually feel it on an emotional level, but how about feeling the suffering when we take on the suffering of somebody else? 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 experience 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. 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 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 toward things that either we’re attracted to, or not only that, but wandering away with aversions, with worries, with tension, with busyness, anxiety, overprotectiveness, fear, these types of things, if our minds are 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 we relax too much, we become dull, and then we don’t feel anything either; we tend to go off in the direction of sleepiness. If we have the mind that is quiet and 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 that is free of attachment, aversion and indifference. If we are attached, we want something from the other person; or in dealing with our own problem, 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. Then there’s aversion, “I don’t want to deal with it; it’s too difficult,” or “I’m afraid of it,” this type of aversion. The indifference is, “I’m too busy,” or “I don’t care.” That also has to be dropped. If we can be open and caring in that context as well, that combination of serenity and equanimity allows for the emotions to flow. In that way, we can work with emotions, like feeling happy or feeling sad.

We imagine the problem of the other person, and then we need to have what’s called “sympathy.” Sympathy is a combination of things: empathy is there; we have to be able to empathize with what the other person is feeling, which means we have to be interested in what the other person is feeling. If we’re not interested, we don’t care. We have to be interested to be able to empathize. Even if we can’t really imagine what the pain of 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, sympathy has compassion, “May you be free of it,” and then a willingness to actually get involved, to actually feel it. Then, we imagine taking the problem on and actually feeling what the other person is feeling or try to imagine what the other person is feeling. When we feel that, then we 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.

Once we feel it a little bit, then we let that slowly, naturally quiet down. When we’re able to let it quiet down, then as we go deeper and deeper and deeper, we’re able to access – especially in terms of having this container attitude – 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 a quiet calm joy, as 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. 

Then, when we have the wish for the other person to be happy, in thinking, “May they be happy,” we think in terms of happiness. We 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 at a very introductory level, which is fine for the introductory level, but we need to go deeper and deeper, so that if we’re really an emotional type of person and if we want to use tonglen as a path that’s very conducive for our development, we can work with it in a mature type of way, not just by indulging our feelings, but by actually working with it in a structured type of manner. So, that’s the mature emotional approach.

The Devotional Approach 

We have the intellectual approach, we have the emotional approach, and then there’s the devotional approach. A devotional approach can also be followed in an immature or mature manner. An immature manner would be, “Oh, how wonderful the Buddha is, how wonderful the Buddha-figures are, the yidams, 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, asking for their help, like asking for help from saints, “Saint Tara, Holy Mother, help me!”

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. 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 follow 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 rituals. Rituals can be very uplifting, very inspiring, if they’re done with some understanding of what we’re doing. If we follow a ritual type of practice every day, 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 there are so many things to do – but there’s one part of the day that is sacred, in a sense. 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 we follow some type of ritual, we feel part of a community of other people who are doing the same thing. There is nothing to be looked down on about that. These are definite benefits that we gain from the devotional, ritualistic type of practice. The point is, however, to look at ritual as an instrument; it’s not an end in itself.

The whole purpose of a ritual is to gain inspiration from it. It’s to use it as a context within which we do various meditation practices. We don’t just do it 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 also 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. 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, I think it’s very important to try to follow some sort of combination and balance of the three. That goes back to this networking principle that I was speaking of earlier where all the different aspects of the teachings fit together; so, likewise, all the different approaches fit together. 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. 

We need to have understanding of what we are doing on the intellectual side, we need to implement and feel what we understand on an emotional level, and we also need to get inspiration and feel inspired by our teachers and the Buddha-figures on a devotional level, so that it gives us the inspiration and energy to propel and uplift 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, we don’t feel like loving; we just don’t feel like it. If we don’t feel like it, we 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 to develop the feeling.

But for developing a positive emotion when we don’t feeling like it, then, in addition to an intellectual approach, there is also 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 of “equanimity and everybody’s been my mother in previous lives; everybody’s been kind to me...” We build up so that we 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 – then we’ll get in touch with the love that is there as part of Buddha-nature. So, we have these two types of approaches. 

However, sometimes we can’t quiet down, or we don’t feel like it, so we 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 it is important to be able to supplement our practice with it. Also, from the other side, it’s very easy to build up a line of reasoning but not feel anything. That indicates that we need to supplement this intellectual approach with the quieting-down type of meditations so that we start to experience something a little bit more naturally arising, and it isn’t rather artificially created.

Also, I think it’s important for the emotional person to realize that even if something is “artificially” created, 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. They’re not. It’s very interesting, if we 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.

If we 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 we achieve liberation from samsara and become an arhat, reaching the eighth bhumi bodhisattva stage, that we’re rid of self-grasping. 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, saying, “I have to be perfect now,” when that really is beyond our abilities, beyond our levels.

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. In the beginning, we don’t actually feel anything. That happens. Again, there’s a block in the feelings. We have to quiet down, like I was explaining with serenity and equanimity, and 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. We combine that quieting-down type of approach with the line of reasoning, so we work like that. For the intellectual one, as I said, we need that emotional side because that tightness of the mind, the tightness on the emotions, needs to be loosened.

For the non-devotional type, well, sometimes we need the energy to pick us up, to inspire us when our energy is 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 chanting. I’m not coming to a Dharma center for choir practice. I want to do the real stuff.” Then, of course, the other extreme is thinking that the ritual is the real stuff, and the learning and the actual working with emotions are not. For the non-devotional type, we very much need 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 our emotions, but inspiration from a living example, that’s something that we get from a spiritual teacher. That’s what gives us 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. Likewise, the relation with a spiritual teacher, that deep relation with a spiritual teacher, isn’t what starts us on the path, but it’s what gives us roots and the inspiration to grow, like a plant grows. We can also receive that type of inspiration from a ritual, if we do it with a proper state of mind, obviously. So, that’s one way of balancing.

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. We don’t know what to do with it; it just sort of gushes. 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. Such visualization in a ritual gives a form that the emotion can take.

Likewise, we may feel tremendous love and appreciation for the spiritual teacher, but when we actually do the Lama Chopa, the Guru Puja, then we go through verse by verse thinking of the qualities, thinking of the benefits that we gain from the teacher, and so on. 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.

For a devotional type, when we can’t understand what’s happening in life, then we 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. Also, doing a ritual before we do intensive study helps to lower our arrogance. 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 have 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. I became involved with tantra practice 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 translate them correctly and get any meaning out of the sadhanas. I found that doing these recitation practices extremely, extremely helpful anyway: they helped to lower my arrogance.

I had come to India with quite a lot of baggage of arrogance, and since I had this attitude, “I’m not going to do something that I don’t understand,” it was clear that this attitude could be a big obstacle, because what level of understanding do I need to have before I will deign to practice this primitive ritual? 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” – this was the lesson I learned from reciting the rituals like that.

That was very important in my own development because then I really started to work with patience and perseverance. Even if we have some sort of translation, usually they’re quite puzzling, “What does it actually mean?” 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 we 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 make a big fuss about them, “It’s not clear what your reference is.” Serkong Rinpoche used to say, “Don’t think that Nagarjuna was incapable of writing a clear text, or 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,” that means that each of these “this’s” and “that’s” has many, many different levels of meaning and interpretation, and so as we learn them, then we can add these meanings 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 those “this’s and “that’s,” all our understanding is going to fit, in a sense, so as we recite it, we fill in all the meaning.

This is one of the big problems of being a translator from a Western background, as we feel very uncomfortable – at least some of us feel very uncomfortable – writing texts that are filled with “this’s” and “that’s”; we want to fill them in with what they mean. Then, we fill them in according to just one commentarial tradition, and then our translation doesn’t function as a root text anymore because it doesn’t fit with any other commentary. The commentaries and their interpretations are extremely different. There are texts that can be understood on a Chittamatra level, they can be understood on a Svatantrika level, they can be understood on a Prasangika level – these different Indian tenet systems – and that becomes really problematic if we don’t leave the words of the text vague and open to these different interpretations. So, that’s one reason for the language being like that. 

The other reason is, and this is particularly true in tantra, that it is an automatic screening system. We don’t want to explain things too clearly because then people will not value the teachings. For those for whom it’s enough, it’s enough, but those who are really, really motivated and interested, they’re going to come back, and they’re going to say, “Could you explain this more?” Then, we explain it a little bit more, and for some people that’ll be enough. In that way, this 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. The process is one of developing ourselves emotionally as well, in terms of our whole personality. 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. Our teacher should ideally be intellectually challenging and studying with them should also be emotionally moving and inspiring. 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.

However, we have to watch out for it just being intellectual dueling, arguing with the teacher, where we just get into debating. That would be the immature intellectual approach, where we’re just constantly dueling. Or we fall in love with the teacher; that would be the immature emotional approach. Or we become mindlessly devotional, “Oh guru, guru, tell me what to do.” We lose all responsibility. We have to avoid all three types of immaturity with our spiritual teacher.

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, who risk playing the whole “great white guru” trip. This is very dangerous. That encourages a mindless devotionalism. Or flirting with students, as that encourages love. Or just being aggressively intellectual and cold, not having any personal relation with the students, just sort of coming in, lecturing, and “bye-bye” and go to your room. That tends to lead toward just that intellectual dueling type of relationship.

If the teacher is able to handle it properly, then we can gain a balance of all these three approaches from a healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher.

Original Audio from the Seminar