Whatever one’s feelings on New Year (celebration of a new start, or just another day), it provides us with a handy, simple measuring tool in our spiritual practice. The measurement is pretty basic, yet profound: How much have I progressed in my practice since the start of 2010?
When we look at our daily practices, we immediately know that we’re awesome
Buddhists. We have an altar with a statue of Tsongkhapa or Vajrayogini or Tara or Setrap, and we make lots of offerings and recite prayers and the Lamrim and do prostrations and chant mantras and do our visualisations and so on. Some of us can even meditate in lotus position for hours!
Having said that, I caught myself yesterday during my daily practices thinking: “These practices are great and the teachings wonderful – but how much of this am I actually
making an effort to apply to my every day life? How much of a ‘Buddhist’ am I outside
my prayers, meditations and recitations?”
With the utmost respect to the practices and the rituals and the teachings, I had the thought that “anyone could do what I’m doing – it’s not difficult
.” As Rinpoche has said, it’s wonderful that we do an hour on the meditation cushion – but what are we doing in other 23 hours after that? Anyone can read teachings, anyone can chant a mantra – but not everyone remembers or even tries to apply the content, the essence of the teachings to their every day living. Perhaps this is what Rinpoche has meant when he talks of people being five, ten, twenty years in Dharma and making little or no progress even after all that time.
When I started to think about the times I’d been caught off guard and found myself dwelling on a horrible situation, indulging in frustration or anger, I realised that if we do our practices only to revert to being over-reactive or nasty or sneaky or devious, it’s a bit like going to the gym for one hour and then having a McDonalds afterwards before lazing around for the rest of the day eating more junk: all the good work is undone; the exercise becomes pointless.
Sticking briefly with the gym analogy, one can go to a gym for years and not make progress if all one does is simply “go through the motions” without putting in any effort. There are people I know who complain about not being able to build their muscles and I reply, “Well, you have been lifting the same weight for six months; perhaps if you push yourself, put some effort in and take of yourself outside the gym as well, you’ll start to see results.”
It’s the same in spiritual practice. One might say, “I don’t understand it. I do my prayers, recitations, mantras and make lots of offerings to Buddha, but still I see no results.” Of course, if that person is still being nasty, bitchy, devious, sneaky and selfish one hour after finishing their practice, is it any wonder there are no results? Buddhas can’t be bribed – unfortunately it’s down to us to put the effort into our practice and that means applying the teachings to our lives directly, whether we are engaging with our friends and family or our work colleagues or strangers we meet in the street.
Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away with “spiritual materialism”. One can have a great teacher, be able to recite from the sutras by heart, have the most opulent of altars and have this or that initiation. However, that all means nothing if there is no sincere and continuous effort to push ourselves to grow in the Dharma. It’s not up to our teachers to make us grow, it’s not up to our spiritual friends – it’s not even up to the Buddha! Though these people can guide us and offer immense support and incredible inspiration, it is solely down to us as individuals to make sure that we make progress.
And so, it’s interesting to look back on twelve months and see just how far we’ve come along. Are you more resentful or less so? Are you now slower in reacting to anger, if at all? Are you more generous, more involved with others, more open to yourself and those around you? These, in my opinion, are true examples of spiritual progress, not how many prostrations you can manage.
I forget where I read the following story, but it provides a good example nonetheless. A group of students were engaged in a one-month retreat in the forest. As one student was chanting mantras, another approached and remarked, “Where is your mala? How will you know how many mantras you’ve chanted?!” The student replied: “Have you only come here to keep score?”
Having had these thoughts, I’ve come to realise that reading and chanting and bowing and offering is not enough. As important as these things are (definitely not to be neglected!), it is just as important – if not more so – to put what we are learning into living practice; to be aware, to complain less than we do, to share our compassion and loving kindness and to benefit ourselves, those around us and those further beyond whenever an opportunity presents itself (which is always). How else can we ever hope to become Buddhas if we don’t live what we learn?