Sometimes I wonder to myself if we in the West really understand what true Dharma is or not. Perhaps I don’t have a clue myself, that’s probably more likely, however after reading and listening to teachings, thinking about those teachings a little bit and trying to put the instructions contained within them into practise I wonder.
It seems to me that we often swap one identity and set of attachments and labels for another, choosing “Buddhism” and being a “Buddhist”, with all the cultural trappings of the particular tradition we are attracted to, as the latest thing to grasp onto and satisfy the ego. Personally, I don’t think that this is necessarily always a bad thing because there is the possibility that this new identity might reduce mental suffering when compared to a previous one. This is because associated with this new “Buddhist” identity are many useful teachings and methods so there is a chance that some of that will rub off and we will discover a route out of all identities. So on the relative level I think it is good, it is okay but ultimately it is not the true Dharma and it is not enough. We can get stuck there, wallowing happily in the relative level still bound by our attachments, fears, and self-cherishing as we have only changed their form but not gone to the root of the matter. There is even the danger of our emotions becoming inflamed and our ignorance being reinforced if we become overly concerned and attached to how important this relative “Buddhism” is to our egos. We may even enter into the path of spiritual materialism if we are not careful; unknowingly we become tightly bound by and fixated on the very object we believe is leading us to liberation. Here the object, the Buddha Dharma, is not at fault rather the problem lies in how we relate to it. This needs to be analysed, watched, re-analysed and watched again. We need to be vigilant because the ego can be difficult to pin down.
So often we do a retreat where the conditions are good for experiencing the inner qualities of the mind beyond mental fabrication. After the retreat the immediate experience of our true condition can become covered over time and the ego mind may identify the previous peace and contentment with that retreat, that gompa, that practice… whatever, and long to experience it again. It allows the relative aspects and ideas of the past to interfere with the freshness of the present moment and this prevents us from experiencing the suchness of the present moment, the liberation we are seeking to realise. An ironic roundabout one might say.
So we often feel, “I must give up my life, I must live in a Dharma centre, I must ordain, it is the only way!” It is a way, yes, but it is not the only way for there are no absolutes. In fact if we did do those things then we could imagine ourself having doubts about what we had given up, having attachments to that life and encounter Dharma centre problems or the problems of a nun or a monk. Our relatively conditioned mind won’t just get left behind with our old job, life or outfit; it will come with us and pop up whenever the conditions are right. So that is where the work must be done, on our own mind. Our mind is ever present irrespective of the outer conditions so there is no time, situation or opportunity like the present moment to practise Dharma but right here and right now in whatever situations we find ourselves.
That is not to say that the monastic tradition has got it wrong or is not necessary, because it hasn’t and the Buddha taught that wherever the monastic tradition exists, then it can be said that the Buddha Dharma exists. However, the Buddha Dharma, that path, is relative and is not the true Dharma in and of itself but a way of discovering the true Dharma if applied to our own experience and put into practice diligently – that is why it is so precious on the relative level and extremely useful if engaged with in that way without a confused understanding. Whether it is called Buddha Dharma or not isn’t the point, ultimately it is a mere label and labels are what bind us - even the useful ones have to dissolve in the end.
So then we may ask, “So what am I supposed to do, sit at home and meditate all day long?” Perhaps not sit at home all day, no, but we should be aiming to be able to meditate all day long, yes. When we sit on our cushion and practice meditation, calm our minds and practice awareness we should not be leaving it there and allow agitation to rule our mind and become distracted for 23 and a half hours a day or however long we are not “meditating”. The formal practice is like a mini-retreat because the conditions are more conducive to accessing the level of mind that is clear, knowing and luminous in its own state. Being mindful of our natural awareness and recognising it under those conditions familiarises us with it so that we can more easily recognise it under “busier” circumstances. It is always there whatever the weather. So the point is to integrate that natural awareness into our daily lives, to recognise that all external and internal arisings are happening within that boundless perspective. Or to put it another way, to see situations, and the thoughts, feelings and emotions they conjure up within us as clouds emerging out of the clear blue sky and then evaporating or passing by. To do so is to practice Dharma and if you have a mind then you are qualified to practice whoever, wherever or whenever you simply are.