Buddhism - The incredible lightness of being
by Ajay Ahuja
Death, My TeacherRigpa house is a large, two-storied building in the west Delhi colony of Inderpuri. The
The auditorium at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Delhi, India, is packed
to capacity by a select audience—comprising mostly seekers from the
Western hemisphere, with a fair sprinkling of Indians—assembled on
an evening to receive what is described on the invitation as a "teaching"
from the renowned Tibetan Buddhist master, Sogyal Rinpoche.
On the facing wall, behind the podium from which the master is to speak, is a set of five paintings depicting the Buddha in meditation: imparting an ambience of serenity, solemnity and tranquillity to the occasion. These paintings are by Elizabeth Brunner, Hungary-born artist who adopted this country as her home during World War II. Now ninety, she is also present to receive the wisdom.
As the expectant crowd waits, suddenly, Rinpoche, dressed in a traditional beige gown, enters and hurriedly takes his place on the podium. Sogyal Rinpoche is the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, an extraordinary work of spiritual significance, and chief of the Rigpa, an international organisation devoted to imparting Buddhist teachings. He travels extensively across the world, having begun teaching in the West in 1974, addressing audiences and holding spiritual retreats.
He begins by inviting questions from members of the audience. Someone asks: "Can the mind be controlled at all?" "We will see," says Rinpoche. After a pause, he adds: "That is kind of an Indian answer. (Laughter) But actually we will see. We'll try to see the question and how you develop yourself. But the answer is possible." Another asks: "What is the mind?" "Something that knows," replies Rinpoche. "But unfortunately we misuse it for grasping. Its goal is to let go of grasping, and realise its pure nature."
The Buddha's teaching, he says, is both vast—comprising 108 Tibetan volumes—and of the essence. It is described as zav gyacheva—vast and profound. "Vast is the approach of the pundit and the learned." The lamas and monks sometimes devote 13 years to studying it. "Profound is the path of the yogi." Yet the teaching can be summed up in three lines: Commit not a single unwholesome action. Cultivate a wealth of virtue. And tame this mind of ours.
He lists the Ten Unwholesome Actions. They are of body (stealing, killing and sexual misbehaviour), speech (lying, harsh words, slander and gossip) and mind (malice, avarice and wrong view). "Who decides what is unwholesome?" someone wants to know. "Your mind," he responds, amidst laughter, adding: "They are considered unwholesome because they are the cause of suffering, dukka, of oneself and others." To abandon the unwholesome acts, and adopt the wholesome ones is, then, dhamma.
It is motivation that provides the key. "In a sense, it doesn't really matter what you do, if your motivation is correct," he says, with perspicacity. At the root of all human phenomena is the mind. "Seek not to cut the root of phenomena, but to cut the root of the mind." He explains: "If you have to cross a field covered with thorns, and you try to cover the field with leather, you won't succeed. It is far simpler to cover your feet with leather."
Rinpoche, born and brought up in Tibet, was taught by some of the great masters and lamas of the Buddhist tradition, in particular, the late Jamyang Khyentse. With the Chinese occupation, he took exile. In 1971, he went to Cambridge University to study comparative religion. Since he began teaching, he has become increasingly popular among seekers in Europe, the USA, Australia and Asia.
His work, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is a modern spiritual classic, focusing on the reality of death which becomes a celebration and search for the very ground of life. With simplicity and insight, it blends personal experience, ancient wisdom and recent findings on death and dying, to inspire a "quiet revolution in the whole way we look at life and the whole way we look at death."
An excerpt: "Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity; but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our 'biography', our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards... It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?
"Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person who we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn't that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?"
"Samsara is the mind projected outwardly, lost in its projection. Nirvana is the mind turned inwardly, recognising its true nature."
Water, if you don't stir it, becomes clear, says a Tibetan proverb. Similarly, the mind, if you don't stir it, finds peace. "The trouble is, we stir it," Rinpoche says, amidst a ripple of laughter. If you leave the mind in its true, natural state, it'll find peace or bliss. Settling the mind is called kshamta; removing the dirt is called vipassana, or meditation. Allow the mind to settle, then in that quiet you can experience goodness, which is our true nature.
Adding a footnote, he says, "In the West, people are over-educated, they know too much. I would call it 'being too clever for one's own good'." The audience is obviously amused."I think that's where ignorance would be bliss."
Many psychologists admit that the gist of psychology is this: the basic cause of all mental troubles is too much thinking. Only thinking creates hope, fear, anxiety and suffering. "A little thought becomes a worry, you build up all kinds of imaginary scenarios, are unable to get to sleep until 2 a.m.—and accomplish nothing!" he says.
It's best to begin simply. "Be spacious," they say in Tibet. The Indian way, he adds by way of an aside, is 'be happy-go-lucky'. We're so used to thinking, sometimes if people don't think for a minute, they worry there's something wrong with them! A French philosopher said that the root cause of man's unhappiness is that he cannot sit quietly in a room by himself.
So at first, just let your mind quietly, spaciously be. "Sometimes, instructions are given just to make you think less and in the end, there's nothing left to say," he says, with irony. "Sometimes, the instruction given has to be emotionally satisfying, and, removing the clutter, you begin to see the wisdom of that. Sometimes, you have to go to monasteries to quieten the mind and its grasping nature."
When in the presence of the masters and the teaching, the mind is quiet, but when one is alone, the mind is back to its clamorous and neurotic activity. So we need practices, like watching the breath. In meditation, 25 per cent attention is on the breath, 25 per cent on staying alert and wakeful, and 50 per cent on spaciousness. Sometimes, one becomes fixated, which defeats the purpose.
As the mind settles, gradually all fragmented aspects of the mind become whole, all inner conflict ceases, the ego and grasping dissolve, hope and fear dissolve, and the mind settles in mind. In that space, you discover your true nature and peace. Sometimes, the problem is not with other people, but with ourselves. So be in touch with yourself, find yourself, it's very nourishing.
If you practise, it brings a healthy self-esteem. And not only the barriers within, barriers from outside also fall away. The sense of separateness falls away.
One listener asks: "I've also at times had glimpses of a spiritual nature, and then I'm comfortable with myself. But soon my everyday self comes back, and again I'm uncomfortable with myself. Why?"
The reply: "Because the battery has worn out, and it has to be recharged—preferably before it wears out. (Laughter) The glimpses are too weak or too small, and the pressure of everyday reality is too strong. It's like an elastic—you stretch it, it goes back. But if you persist, someday it will pop."
Sometimes (he says) we have to go through suffering, attachment, to realize that it's all completely worthless. Suppose you are bewitched, fall in love with somebody, lose your dignity and go through all that. Then one day you meet the same person and say to yourself: "Why did I fall in love with this person?"
With a ready smile, which lights up his face, and a puckish sense of humour, Rinpoche says: "I'm really impressed by you all—especially by those of you who did not speak." There is laughter, and he adds: "I'm just teasing, sometimes we have to tease each other."
Let me spell it out (he continues). First, just be spacious. (Teaching is important, it eliminates ignorance). Then create the environment of the mind—incense, music, lighting, if possible, proximity to nature. Then you practise, it's not really meditation, but creating the right environment for it. Preferably, keep a book of wisdom with you.
Sometimes, dying is difficult if you're attached to life. Often, we associate dying with losing, which can create pain. But the truth of life is that we cannot hold on to anything. Not what is held, and even the holder is changing all the time. "You cannot wash your hands in the same river twice," goes a Tibetan saying. Sometimes letting go is kind, enjoyable; it brings a different kind of appreciation, not of attachment but of letting go.
Sometimes, in the presence of your masters or during practice, you become aware of the mind beyond your mind, and in that moment you feel, "even if I die now in this state, I'll be happy". And in that state there is a letting go. But the problem is, it doesn't last. So keep having these little glimpses. And in that practice there is a letting go, like losing the cloud but gaining the sky.
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