To every practitioner, actual methods are extremely important. One must truly practice in order to achieve liberation. By reciting the name of the Buddha one-pointedly, we can go to Western Pure Land; by practicing renunciation, bodhicitta, and emptiness, we can gradually eradicate our afflictions and attain liberation in the end.
We should all recite the Buddha’s name on a regular basis, but to be fully prepared, we should also undertake a concurrent practice. That is to say, we should choose one of the Middle Way practices in either Vajrayana or exoteric Buddhism to ensure all grounds are covered. If we can realize emptiness, that certainly is best; if not, we can still go to Western Pure Land if we are sincere in chanting the Buddha’s name. The two should be practiced together, this is also His Holiness Jigme Phunstok Rinpoche’s advice. At the same time, listening and contemplating the Dharma are both helpful to the practice and to chanting the Buddha’s name, so these activities are complementary. An integrated practice like this is definitely beyond error.
Without practice or mind training, we cannot be sure of attaining liberation. For instance, over the several decades in our lifetime, we do not in general have to worry about our livelihood; as long as we are willing to work, it is more or less guaranteed. However, death, this uninvited guest, comes when we least expect it. At the critical moment, we are not at all prepared to confront death or transform it into the path. Invariably, we are helpless when death arrives, so the question of birth, aging, illness, and death is a more important one than existence. If we cannot address this problem properly, it is more frightening than the struggle to stay alive; if we can come to terms with the problem in the correct way, it will be more meaningful than solving our livelihood. Therefore, practice is extremely important.
Before the practice, we must first have the corresponding view. Without right understanding, how do we practice? If we are not even clear about the direction, there is no point in talking about the practice. A lot of people will say “we want practice, not listening and contemplation.” Although practice is imperative in the end, so too are listening and contemplation up front. We can practice only after we have given sufficient time to listening and contemplation, that is, after these activities have reached a certain level.
What does “reaching a certain level” mean? By this we mean it is impractical to receive teachings on all of the 84,000 Dharma methods; however, at the very least, we should understand the method we are practicing, why it is practiced this way, and what the final outcome is. To achieve this understanding, we must first spend an appropriate amount of time to listen and reflect on the Dharma.
Regrettably, ordinary people have inverted values. Everyone thinks the ultimate goal in life is to make money and live well; the question of life and death, on the other hand, can be brushed off. In reality, even though our livelihood is an important matter, practice is even more important.
Mind training is essential to everyone, including me. Like all of you, I still have afflictions and continue to wander in samsara. Since we have obtained precious human birth in this lifetime, we should cherish the opportunity to practice; if we forgo this chance, I fear that we are giving up on an opportunity that comes just once in many kalpas.
Of course, I cannot say we will not get another opportunity. But just when this opportunity will arrive is difficult to say — perhaps one lifetime, perhaps one hundred lifetimes, possibly even one or ten thousand lifetimes, which is a very distant matter. Not only that, can we be clear-headed enough by then to seize the opportunity? We may, as in this lifetime, idle away our time in ignorance, waste our precious birth, and once again miss a great chance. That would be the same as having no opportunity at all.
There are some people now that are really pitiful. Shortsighted and simpleminded, they are contented with their current lot, think they have everything they deserve, and do not feel it is necessary to practice.
This is a deluded way of thinking since such a person cannot look beyond the present. Although they have everything they want now – good health, a successful career, and a happy family, who can guarantee these things will last? No one can give this assurance, not in this life, let alone the next. Thus, even with power and wealth, we need to practice.
Conversely, some people from low-income families will question how they can find time to practice and study the teachings when their livelihood is still an issue that has to be resolved. For them, it’s wait and see!
This viewpoint is also incorrect. If we lack for food, we can borrow money or even beg to get something to eat; whatever the situation, there is always a way. However, on a major issue such as birth, aging, illness, and death, we cannot borrow money or beg for help; without prior practice, there is nothing that can be done. Thus, even the poor have to practice.
To summarize, whether we choose to practice or not, it is essential to all of us regardless of our background.
Our focus hereon is the practice, not burning incense, prostrating to the buddhas, or reciting the sutras. If we read Diamond Sutra in the morning and KŞitigarbhasūtra in the evening, this constitutes recitation, not practice. Although reciting the sutras can contribute to the accumulation of merit and help the practice, it is not true practice.
What constitutes a true practice? It is contemplation on precious human birth, impermanence of life, and the other preliminaries. This discussion on the practice of the Four Dharma Seals is based on the teaching of Mipham Rinpoche, but overall, it is training in renunciation and bodhicitta, and gaining realization of emptiness of self through practices in Madhyamaka and Dzogchen.
We must try our utmost to cultivate these three qualities of mind. If at the end of our lives, we do not have renunciation and bodhicitta, nor realization of emptiness, and moreover cannot obtain a favorable rebirth in the three higher realms, the consequence of falling into the unfavorable realms is unthinkable.
We know that the animal realm is the preferred rebirth among the three lower realms; however, a key point is that animals are extremely ignorant and incapable of any kind of practice. Not only that, they cannot distinguish between good and evil, are just as afflicted by desire, anger, and delusion, and repeatedly commit unwholesome actions. Thus, taking rebirth as an animal will create even more bad karma, the result of which is one may never again return as a human being.
Due to the great importance of practice, we must be diligent. In this lifetime, we must at least develop genuine renunciation and bodhicitta. With renunciation and bodhicitta as a basis, we can quickly realize emptiness; even without realization, genuine bodhicitta will lead to a better future life, give us greater certainty in the practice, and bring us closer to liberation. Although we are now blessed as human beings, how much time do we have left in this life? No one knows, perhaps a few years, ten-plus years, or several decades; when our blessings accumulated from past years are exhausted, our situation will change for the worse. This is not the Creator’s doing, nor does it happen without reason, it is the natural law of cause and effect. In the face of this natural law, there is little one can do; however, with effort, one can alter the direction it takes.
It is like cultivating land; under ordinary circumstances, when a seed is planted, it grows into a crop. But whether it can grow into a crop or a certain kind of crop depends on other conditions. A seed will not grow into a crop if the conditions are either incomplete or unfavorable. Although a cause produces an effect in general, there may not be a result if conditions change radically during the development process.
What we hope to do now is to change the rules governing samsara. To do that, we need to undertake practice – specifically the practices that lead to renunciation, bodhicitta, and realization of emptiness.
After training in these three practices, we can say: although I have committed a lot of bad karma in this life, I have trained in these sacred practices and have not wasted this precious birth, so my life is meaningful. Conversely, if we have not trained in these practices and have only attained worldly fame, wealth, and so forth, this kind of life would be meaningless. At the moment of death, all worldly things are useless. In life, they are not indispensable; after death, they cannot accompany us. The only thing of value that we can bring with us is our practice. Only our realization from practice is dependable; it will never lie to us.
We cannot say because I have to work and build a career, I cannot practice. Although Sakyamuni Buddha did not require all practitioners to take monastic vows, we must make time for practice at the same time we work for a living. How to reach a balance between work and practice depends on our individual situation.
If not having time is an excuse for not practicing today, and similarly tomorrow, we will never have time to practice. In general, lay people have difficulty forgoing their activities in everyday life and their family. If they delay their plans for practice until late in their seventies or eighties, they may not have the physical or mental capacity to practice even if the aspiration is present. Thus, we cannot keep putting it off; we should do it now.
Why is practice not a priority for most people? It is because they lack the opportunity to listen and reflect on the Dharma. Listening and contemplation are very important for this reason. Although we can go to Western Pure Land if we recite the Buddha’s name with devotion and one-pointedness, where does the devotion come from? Devotion does not descend from the sky nor rise from the earth; it comes by way of listening and contemplation. Only after listening and contemplation will we begin to think: I must achieve a state of complete mindfulness when I chant the Buddha’s name. Only then will we have the motivation and confidence to chant the Buddha’s name with devotion. Without listening and contemplation, there is no basis for motivation and confidence.
As a lay person, we must first have a clear understanding of the method we are practicing. If we have additional energy and interest, and the opportunity, we can also take up other methods; if we do not have the time or energy, it is not a problem. For instance, in practicing renunciation, we only need to understand the contents that pertain to renunciation; we may or may not have to understand other methods.
A Tibetan Buddhist master once gave an analogy: if a person has ventured to the top of the mountain and returns to the village below to exclaim, “Come quickly, all of you! The view at the top is spectacular!” the villagers will believe him. If he has never been to the top of the mountain and exhorts, “Go! The view at the top is spectacular!” the villagers may not believe him.
Here I would like to clarify a point. What I am propagating is not a viewpoint I just improvised, but the words of Sakyamuni Buddha. These teachings were transmitted directly from Sakyamuni Buddha down to my guru, who in turn passed them on to me. I am only transmitting to you the contents of the teachings I have heard. Whether you practice or not is up to you.
The importance of practice has already been discussed. In the following section, the actual practice shall be introduced.
The practice of the Four Dharma Seals is: first, emptiness; second, impermanence; third, samsara is suffering; fourth, no- self. This is the order in which they will be explained.