Practicing on the Path

Perspective on Meditation in the Buddhist Tradition
by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche

These days, meditation is fashionable—a way for privileged individuals to attend special events, consume good food, interact with like-minded people, and have their picture taken with a famous Buddhist Lama. Obviously, this is not genuine practice. True meditation heightens your sensitivity and sharpens your insight. You will see everyone’s deepest desires and most difficult suffering more clearly. If you think you are special simply because you meditate, you are being a little arrogant. After all, spiritual practice is not a way to bolster your ego or show off. Genuine meditation practitioners are never pretentious; instead, they embody real humility and sincere concern for others.

An accomplished meditator is capable of overcoming every obstacle in life. Developing this level of confidence requires an approach that goes beyond simply resting in a state of repose. It is not sufficient to learn a few techniques and practice meditation just to relax and quiet your mind. To sit calmly in your room, still your thoughts, and drift into a state of torpidity is not meditation. A cow may sit still and breathe quietly when its stomach is full, but can we call this meditation?

Meditation is not just for relaxation; its primary purpose is to develop the capacity to respond skillfully and gracefully to life’s difficulties as well as its joys. We have to reflect deeply on the uncertainty and brevity of our lifespan. Contemplate the fact that all the things in which we place our trust are contingent and constantly changing. We have to use our spiritual practice to look within and discover the heart of our being.

Followers of the spiritual path must proceed in this way. Only then will we have the opportunity to experience the real essence and value of our human life. It is our chance to be reawakened, our precious opportunity to enjoy boundless energy and employ consummate skill for our own well-being and for the well-being of others.

The nature of the mind is unobstructed. Moment by moment, one thought is born, while another one dies. This energy is unceasing, and it springs from primordial wisdom. This energy is the essence of what we are. This essence manifests, but not in any solid or substantial way. We cannot imagine it or express it. It transcends imagination and expression.

This essence is the compassionate nature of mind. From this compassionate nature, energy flows without obstruction, coming and going. We should understand that thoughts have no place to arise, no place to remain, and no place to go. They just come from vast space and disappear into vast space.

Nothing is concrete or substantial, and while everything appears in the mind, there is nothing to grasp. Do not try to conceive of it. It is like reflections in a mirror. The mirror reflects naturally, without effort. Images just appear and disappear in the mirror. In the same way, thoughts arise and vanish in the state of mind that is ineffable and beyond words.

The mirror’s potential to reflect is infinite. When there is nothing reflected in the mirror, the mirror has not lost its reflective potential. Do not think that the mirror must always reflect something. Just as the essence of our being is independent of causes and conditions, the mirror’s potential to reflect is independent of the presence of an object. In other words, you can be a spiritual practitioner all the time. When there are reflections in the mirror, you can practice. When there are no reflections in the mirror, you can practice. The potential that exists in the mirror exists within you—you are the mirror.

Just watch your thoughts, like an old man watching a child at play. The child is engrossed in her games, but the old man takes none of it seriously. He is wise enough to understand that her games are flights of fancy, only the play of the mind. Thoughts are coming and going—just recognize that and remain in the continuum of mindfulness.

Once a student of mine, who was a lawyer, told me that his profession was not a noble one, and so he would not make a good Buddhist. I did not agree. I told him that a lawyer could be an excellent practitioner on this path. If lawyers are tempted to behave unethically, this is an opportunity for them to examine their behavior and improve their character. In the same way, if you do not challenge yourself, like an athlete training to run faster and jump higher, you will never grow stronger. Having faults is not the problem. Believing you are faultless is a big problem.

There was a monk who was a sincere and ascetic practitioner. He was scholarly and had great understanding. He lived in a monastery with eight hundred monks. The Buddha’s teachings went straight to his heart, engendering compassion, kindness, and humility. He never cared to sit on a high throne or be a leader of any kind. He always sat in the last row and took a small portion of what was left to eat. But one day, a patron came to the monastery with buckets of yogurt to offer the monks. The patron began serving yogurt to the monks in the first row, filling their large bowls. This monk enjoyed yogurt very much and grew concerned as he thought to himself, “He’s giving them so much yogurt, when he reaches my row, there may not be any left for me.” When the patron reached the last row, the monk could see that there was still plenty of yogurt in the bucket. The patron went to put a serving into the monk’s bowl, but this monk immediately turned his bowl upside down. The surprised patron asked, “What’s wrong?” The monk replied, “This greedy monk already had his yogurt when you were serving the front row. He doesn’t deserve any more.”