Read an Excerpt
The First Point:
First, train in the preliminaries.
The goal of Dharma practice is to realize a state of genuinewell-being that flows from a wellspring of awareness thatis pure and unobscured. The ancient Greeks called such astate eudaimonia, a truth-given joy. The ancient Indians calledit mahasukha, great bliss that arises not from pleasurablestimuli, but from the nature of one's own pure awarenessitself. This is not simply a happy feeling; it is a state of beingthat underlies and suffuses all emotional states, thatembraces all the joys and sorrows that come our way. It is away of engaging with life without confusion. The ancientGreeks knew about it. The Indians and Tibetans know aboutit. Funny that we don't have a word for it in modern English.Maybe it has something to do with the fact that weknow a lot more about mental disease than we do aboutmental health.
Years ago I asked the Director of the National Institute ofMental Health how the medical profession defined mentalhealth. He replied that they didn't have any widely agreedupon definition, for they didn't have enough data! They haveplenty of data on mental disorders, though, and accordingto conservative estimates, one in five persons, at least inthe United States, will have a serious, diagnosable, andtreatable mental disorder some time during their lifetime.
Even for those of us who are not presently suffering froma diagnosable mental disease, it's high time to ask:what'sso great about being normal? When we're normal, we'restill subject to a wide range of mental problems, with theirresultant distress. Let's now ask the provocative question:how mentally healthy could we possibly we be? Is there alimit? How in touch with reality would we have to be toachieve supreme mental health? A path that has stood thetest of centuries is the practice of Dharma. And what isDharma? One meaning of "Dharma" is simply truth, specificallythose truths that, when realized, lead to a state ofgenuine, lasting happiness that is not contingent upon pleasurablestimuli. In terms of our overall well-being, Dharmaincludes important truths concerning diet, exercise, andmedication, as well as spiritual practice. Indeed, the theoriesand practices of traditional Tibetan medicine are commonlyviewed by its practitioners as integral elements of Dharma.
In the Tibetan Buddhist context, there are several criteriafor discriminating between what is and is not Dharma. Onecriterion for Dharma is whether or not a theory or practiceleads to spiritual awakening. From a traditional viewpoint,another criterion for Dharma is anything that aids spiritualawakening in this life or beyond this life. Using this criterion,there are ways of conduct and ways of viewing realitythat are beneficial beyond the context of this present life.There is a third very pragmatic criterion for determiningwhat can be considered Dharma that doesn't depend onbelief in enlightenment or reincarnation. This criterion ofpracticing Dharma is engaging with all events in ways thatare realistic and conducive to one's own and others' well-being.When things go well, are there ways to experiencedeeper joy and satisfaction? When things go wrong, is thereanything we can do that would still enhance our overallwell-being? Ways of bringing forth a sense of fulfillmentand meaning during the inevitable ups and downs of lifeare also considered Dharma.
These three criteria define Dharma but are not exclusiveto Buddhism. Dharma can be found in non-Buddhist pathsand even outside of religious practice altogether. The testof whether a practice or theory is Dharma is whether it resultsin benefit throughout the inevitable vicissitudes of life.
On the one hand, we may feel Dharma practice seemsdifficult, time-consuming, and filled with problems. Fromanother perspective, if what we really want is to practiceDharma, we get immediate gratification. Dharma can bepracticed anytime: on happy occasions or when we are sick.Just as soon as we want to practice, we can. But if Dharmais practiced only as a means to an end, such as to get moremoney or have people like us, then we are in a situation ofdelayed gratification.
What does it mean to "practice Dharma"? It is not onetechnique, not just meditation. You can develop a repertoireof Dharma practices for every occasion. When youstart to understand the richness and diversity of Dharmapractice, you will see that even if you are stressed out, tired,or depressed, you can still practice. Even when you aredying, you can practice Dharma. You can become a skillfulchef of Dharma using its rich and varied recipes to makeany situation into a source of fulfillment and happiness.When what you really want is to practice Dharma, you findmore and more ability to do so in a wider variety of situations.Dharma is like medicine; it is designed to help stopthe habitual behaviors and attitudes that impede the capacityof the mind to heal itself. The more you practiceDharma, the more Dharma unveils your natural inbornhappiness.
The Seven-Point Mind-Training is the essence of Dharma,a concise array of methods to achieve genuine happinessno matter what our circumstances. In its fullest dimension,the Mind-Training is also a complete path to enlightenment.The seven points begin, "First, train in the preliminaries,"and lay the foundation for effective Dharma. You don't haveto be spiritual or intellectual to practice Dharma effectively.What's needed is to saturate the mind with two challenges:a thorough evaluation of ordinary life and a thoroughevaluation of human potential.
This First Point, a single line of a text of only about fourpages, represents a vast Tibetan Buddhist teaching. In themetaphor of spiritual practice as a journey, the practitionermust find a qualified guide, a reliable vehicle, an accuratemap, and the best methods. The "preliminaries" serve as acompass, keeping efforts directed toward the ultimate goal.The preliminaries address unexamined assumptions noteasily identified and even more difficult to root out. Therefore,at the beginning of Dharma practice and periodicallyafterward, returning to the preliminaries keeps spiritualpractice well-tuned and prevents wasting time in detours.
"Preliminary" isn't a code word for "skip this and get tothe important stuff." The important stuff starts here. Thisis it, no warm-up. When I went to Dharamsala, India, in 1971to study meditation, I received teachings from the Tibetanlama Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. He spent weeks discussingthe preliminaries and I kept wondering when he wasgoing to get around to meditation. Slowly it dawned onme that he was teaching discursive meditation. Meditationis not only settling your mind and finding stillness, it isalso bringing shape and meaning to conceptual thoughtby refining the way we view the world. It is the quality ofpractice of the preliminaries that determines over the longrun whether what we are practicing is genuine Dharma ora dharma look-alike. The preliminaries are discursivemeditations, situated at the very beginning of the Mind-Trainingto save time.
All of my Tibetan teachers have emphasized the preliminaries,but none more so than Gyatrul Rinpoche. He wasraised and trained in Tibet and has taught Dharma in theWest for twenty-five years. He sees his long-term studentsstruggling with the same old stuff and asks us, "Why do Iteach you all the advanced practices of Dzogchen andMahamudra when you are still in kindergarten? Go backand learn your ABC's." He is referring to the preliminaries,especially relevant for Westerners who tend to put a lot ofmuscle into spiritual practice and later, sometimes yearslater, wonder why there is so little result. The preliminariesare Dharma insurance to prevent spiritual practice fromjust being new packaging for old habits.
The preliminaries are four traditional discursive meditationscalled "the four thoughts that turn the mind." Thesemeditations turn our minds toward our highest aspirationsand progressively reorder priorities. Discursive meditationis thinking deeply about a chosen subject and can be donein spare moments during the day. No special posture isrequired. Discursive meditation is a very practical way ofintegrating Dharma practice into everyday life.
The Rare and Precious Human Life of Leisureand Opportunity
The first of the four thoughts that turn the mind is: "theprecious and rare human life of leisure and opportunity."Each of the terms in this phraseprecious, rare, leisure,and opportunityis a mnemonic to bring to mind instantaneouslyand deeply specific teachings and experience.
In the line "precious human life of leisure and opportunity,"leisure means time. Some people live in situations inwhich there is no leisure, in which every breath is committedto finding food, keeping warm, or dodging bomb shells.If you live in an area of pestilence, famine or war, you haveno leisure. Leisure means having time to breathe the present,and it makes it possible to drench the heart and mind inDharma. Leisure is an empty vessel that can be filled withthe nectar of Dharma.
Leisure is one of the greatest benefits of civilization.Without civilization, life is absorbed with growing, killingor protecting the next meal. With civilization, we can arrangetime off, vacations, weekends, a lunch break. We candecide how to use leisure. This first discursive meditationincreases appreciation for free time. Unfortunately, in ourculture leisure time is often devoted to catching up, gettingahead or battery recharging for a return to work. We havethis weird phrase that leisure time is "time to kill." We needto work and we need to sleep, but the critical point here isthat leisure should not just be a way to revitalize after ahard day at work. Using leisure time beneficially within aworkaholic ethic requires shifting our priorities. This meansgradually having work support spiritual practice and ensuringthat spiritual practice does not just become a toolfor improving work performance.
Opportunity is the second quality of this precious humanlife. Tibetans have a list of ten kinds of opportunities thatfocus on the ability, desire, open-mindedness, and faith toengage in spiritual practice. Opportunity also includes findingthe appropriate circumstances for practice, including aspiritual tradition that is compatible with your own aspirationand temperament. The benefits of Dharma arise fromleisure and opportunity, the fortuitous combination of abilityand circumstances. The coming together of these factors,at any time in any human life, is "rare." These factors are"precious" because they are what is necessary to obtain thejewel of life, genuine happiness, and spiritual awakening,the results of successful spiritual practice.
Spiritual practice is not a shortcut to the American Dreamnor is it an embellishment to a comfortable life. Dharmaaddresses the root causes of suffering and requires that wetake a hard look at the preconceptions that maintain ourworldview and perpetuate our problems. As much as successseems to be the source of the good things in life,happiness included, success isn't the goal of spiritual practice.Our ideas about success are themselves based onpreconceptions and are also part of a self-perpetuating cyclepreventing us from achieving the genuine success andhappiness that we seek.
The Buddhist tradition addresses preconceptions aboutsuccess head-on with an eight-term differential diagnosiscalled "the eight mundane concerns," eight orientationstoward the pursuit of happiness based on unexamined assumptions.Fixation on these concerns subverts our bestefforts, leading either to counterfeit success or truefrustration.
The eight mundane concerns consist of four pairs ofpriorities: the pursuit of material acquisitions and the avoidanceof their loss; the pursuit of stimulus-driven pleasureand the avoidance of discomfort; the pursuit of praise andthe avoidance of blame; and the pursuit of good reputationand the avoidance of bad reputation. These eight concernscommonly sum up our motivation for the pursuit of happiness,and this is exactly the problem. The eight mundaneconcerns, not wrong in themselves, underlie our motivation,and it is motivation more than any other single factor thatdetermines the outcome of spiritual practice.
There is nothing bad about having material acquisitionsacar, a house; and, conversely, poverty is not necessarily avirtue. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a sunset, agood book, pleasant conversation, or beautiful music. It isnot a bad thing to be praised. Being loved and respected byothers is not bad either. On the other hand, it is not bad tobe rejected by others if you are leading a wholesome andmeaningful life. Many accomplished Dharma practitionersare content and happy living in total poverty. Reputationmay go up and down, but it is possible for contentment toremain constant. The true source of happiness does not liein mastery of the eight mundane concerns. Rich, poor,praised, blamed, stimulated, bored, respected, revilednoneof these mundane concerns are in themselves sourcesof happiness. Nor do they prevent happiness.
The problem is that when we focus on mundane concernsas a means to happiness, life becomes a crap shoot.There are no guarantees. If you aspire to material wealth,you may not get it, but if you do, there is no guarantee youwill be happy. If you aspire to pleasure, once a stimulus isover, so is satisfaction. There is no lasting happiness in scurryingafter praise. People who are respected and famoustend to have the same personal problems as everyone else.The fatal shortcoming of the eight mundane concerns isthat they are counterfeit Dharma, misguided ways ofseeking happiness, and by habitually mistaking mundaneconcerns for genuine Dharma, our efforts to achievegenuine happiness are continually undermined.
The First Point of the Mind-Training is to train in thepreliminaries in order to be able to differentiate betweengenuine and counterfeit Dharma. If you bank on achievinggenuine happiness and fulfillment by finding the perfectmate, getting a great car, having a big house, the bestinsurance, a fine reputation, the top jobif these are yourfocus, wish also for luck in life's lottery. The objective ofthe First Point is to save time. Don't wait until you are eightyyears old to realize the shortcomings of the eight mundaneconcerns; examine your priorities now. There is no need toreject these mundane concerns altogether. What is necessaryis to shift your primary investment elsewhere, to genuineDharma. Once priorities shift, the mundane concerns serveas supports for Dharma practice. Learning to distinguishbetween the many types of pseudo-success, the many facsimilesof happiness, and genuine happiness saves time andgrief in the long run. The goal of genuine Dharma is toachieve genuine happiness.
We have covered two words, leisure and opportunity, inthe first of four preliminary discursive meditations, "precioushuman life of leisure and opportunity." Leisure andopportunity mean having the time, motivation, and circumstancesto engage in spiritual practice. "Preciousness" refersto our human potential to eliminate the sources of sufferingwithin our own being, to transform the mind so that, nomatter what the circumstances, we need never suffer frommental afflictions again. How? By identifying and progressivelyeradicating the full spectrum of the afflictions thatare the source of suffering. Buddhism takes a radical viewon suffering, presenting the hypothesis that it can be eliminatedaltogether. Suffering is eradicated not by findingpsychological anesthetics or disengaging from the world,but by working from within to transform the mind itself.The way to eliminate suffering is to transform the mind.The Seven-Point Mind-Training is a flash card owner'smanual on how to transform the mind using the rawmaterial of life.
The word "precious" in the first of the four thoughts thatturn the mind serves to point out that this human life is notas it first appears; it is a precious and unique opportunity.A human life of leisure and opportunity is "precious" becauseit is an opportunity to eradicate suffering and achievegenuine happiness. As we witness other people's sufferingand experience our own, freedom from personal sufferingand having compassion for others appear to be mutuallyexclusive. Compassion for others' suffering seems to increaseour own suffering, making detachment seem likethe only reasonable route to one's own individual happiness.But is this really so?
In 1992, I went with a group of neuroscientists to theHimalayas to study the effects of meditation. One of ourtopics of investigation was compassion. We asked an oldTibetan monk, a teacher of many of the other yogis wholived in the mountains, about the relationship betweensuffering and compassion. It is said in the Buddhist traditionthat a bodhisattva, a person who is continuously motivatedto help sentient beings achieve spiritual awakening, looksupon all sentient beings as a mother looks upon her child.When a child is hurt, the mother feels compassion and suffers.Since the goal of Dharma is to alleviate suffering, theneuroscientists and I asked the yogi about the relationshipbetween suffering and compassion.
The old monk explained the relation of compassion andsuffering: "Empathetic suffering comes before compassion."The first stage of compassion is empathy. With empathy,there is suffering. But the suffering you feel by empathizingthen becomes fuel for the fire of compassion. Empathycombined with what Tibetans call sem-shuk, or "power ofthe heart," kindles compassion. The power of compassionis beyond personal suffering and focuses on solutions, whatcan be done. The old yogi explained to the neuroscientiststhat when compassion arises, suffering is transcended andone attends to how to be of service. Suffering is the fuel ofcompassion, not its result.
The cumulative wisdom of centuries of Dharma practitionersstates that with this precious human life of leisure andopportunity we have a fathomless capacity for compassion.This same wisdom tradition tells us we have a fathomlesscapacity for wisdom and power. The human potential forcontemplative wisdom, compassion, and power, known toBuddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslimcontemplatives, remains virtually unexplored in the modernWest. We have a dismissive term for the potential ofthe mind"placebo." Western culture associates the powerof the mind with the power of a sugar pill. During the pastfour hundred years, while delighting in its growing scientificprowess, the West has neglected the exploration anddevelopment of the innate human potential for wisdom andcompassion.
In the early 1970s, a friend of mine complained to theDalai Lama about how difficult it is to become enlightenedin such a "degenerate time" as ours. This has been a familiarrefrain throughout the history of Buddhism, with justabout every generation referring to its own era as a degeneratetime. But the Dalai Lama's response cut him short.He told him that the only reason so few people attain enlightenmentthese days is that they are not practicing withthe same diligence as the great adepts of the past. If peoplewere to practice today with the same dedication as suchgreat contemplatives as the Tibetan yogi Milarepa, they wouldachieve the same results, regardless of how degenerate theirtimes are.
A key element in realizing the potential of our precioushuman life of leisure and opportunity is faith. Faith is alsoa prerequisite for a successful career. If you don't have faithin your chosen field, physics for example, it will be difficultto complete a Ph.D. As in many endeavors, in scienceit is necessary to take many things, such as research outsideyour specialty, on well-grounded faith. Well-groundedfaith in our potential for wisdom, compassion, and power isan important part of what Buddhists mean by "opportunity."Another type of faith, blind faith that has no basis in reality,is useless at best.
The preciousness of life is having time and circumstancesto fulfill what Tsongkhapa, a great fifteenth-century TibetanBuddhist contemplative, called our "eternal longing." Thisis a very significant statement because the Buddhist meaningof "eternal" includes all previous lifetimes, a very longtime. The Seven-Point Mind-Training advises us to recognizeright at the beginning our opportunity and potential.Also, be effective; don't get sidetracked. In this life, youhave a precious opportunity to fulfill your eternal longingto find genuine happiness.
Leisure and opportunity are precious and rare. The Buddhistmeaning of "rare" is based on Buddhist cosmology,which in some respects is similar to modern astronomyconcerning the size and age of the cosmos. Western astronomersspeak of solar systems, galaxies, galaxy clusters, andgalaxy super-clusters. Western astronomers attempt to pinpointthe date of the Big Bang, one estimate being thirteenbillion years ago. Buddhist cosmology agrees in principlewith the theory of the universe oscillating between cyclesof Big Bang/development/Big Crunch, another Big Bang/development/Big Crunch, but it places the history of ourpresent universe at considerably longer than thirteen billionyears.
Excerpted from Buddhism with an Attitude by B. Alan Wallace. Copyright © 2001 by B. Alan Wallace. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.