AMONG THE MAJOR RELIGIOUS
TRADITIONS of the world, Buddhism has continued as a living tradition for over
2,500 years. It was founded in the East by Shakyamuni Buddha, yet that fact
does not mean that Buddhism is simply an oriental custom or culture. From a
Buddhist point of view, spirituality is basic and fundamental to all people
without exception. Each person has the inherent potential to attain the highest
possible sanity--the complete awakened mind. What is introduced through Buddhism
is the means to recognize and experience this potential, no matter who we are.
It is important to recognize that true spirituality can be assimilated into
and permeate a culture, but on the other hand a particular set of customs and
beliefs cannot become assimilated into what is spiritual. Since Buddhism addresses
what is basically and fundamentally true of the phenomenal world and our own
existence, it is not confined to a set of beliefs or customs designed for a
particular group or locality.
There are two ways in which we can relate to the phenomenal world and to ourselves. One point of view is the way we normally perceive the phenomenal world and ourselves, and the other is the point of view of knowing things as they really are, fundamentally and ultimately. Most of the time our relationship to the world around us accords not with its basic nature but with our perceptions of it. We do not experience our own basic nature, the potential for the completely awakened state of mind; instead we experience only what we see. The result is that we experience tremendous conflict in our lives. No matter how hard we try to work things out, there is always disorder and dissatisfaction, always something missing. No matter how much we seem to have accomplished, there is still more to achieve. This dissatisfaction continues and its scale increases, because what we are fundamentally and how we perceive are not the same.
When we act according to our mistaken perception of the world and cling to it as fundamentally true, we react to chaos and dissatisfaction as if it came from the outside. We feel threatened or victimized by external situations, and feel that we must run away from the causes of dissatisfaction. Our confusion is compounded by the fact that we take these problems to be very real. We try many different means to escape, but never really think about the possibility of working with ourselves.
There might be a more workable situation if we began to work with our own existence rather than some external reference point. Our present situation includes both the object outside, something to be held by consciousness, and consciousness itself, which holds and acknowledges, accepts or rejects these objects. We fail to recognize this dual involvement of subject and object, fail to recognize that it is not simply the thing out there, on its own, that is threatening us and causing chaos, and so we blame the object as the cause of our chaos, our problems, our dissatisfactions. When we begin to have some sense of the relation between subject and object, we may begin to see that it is our own mental projections that are reflected back into our mind. Instead of recognizing them as our own, however, we think of them as problems existing outside of us and try to work them out externally. The fact that the chaos and dissatisfaction continue shows that going along with our perceptions is really mistaken.
The Tibetan word for Buddhism, nangpa, has the meaning of internalizing, indicating that we need to turn inward and work within ourselves. By doing so and gaining a clearer sense of who we really are, we develop a sense of our existence as it relates to all that surrounds us. If we look outside and try to figure out what is out there based on confused mental projections, we will never recognize who we are. What is fundamentally true is that the experience of pain or pleasure is not so much what is happening externally as it is what is happening internally: the experience of pain or pleasure is mainly a state of mind. Whether we experience the world as enlightened or confused depends on our state of mind.
Another cause of our confusion is a misunderstanding of how things originate. As far as our relationship to the world is concerned, this phenomenal world exists based on interdependent origination. Nothing whatsoever, not even the most minute particle, exists independently or permanently on its own. No matter how truly, how permanently, or how reliably an object may seem to exist, as far as the true nature of world and phenomena are concerned, it lacks true existence. This also applies to our own mind. When we relate to the phenomenal world from a point of view contrary to its real nature, we create problems for ourselves.
From a Buddhist point of view, any problem, any dissatisfaction comes directly from ourselves. We must understand this in order to establish a healthy basis for our lives and come to see dissatisfaction as an expression of our mental habits. We have become addicted to these patterns, because we have not recognized our own resources. We have inherited a basic richness and wealth, but through habitual clinging, we have acted contrary to who we are and what we have, and so experience conflict. It is like a child who has been spoiled: the child did not start out that way, but was exposed to all kinds of influences that made him or her into a spoiled child.
It is also interesting to recognize that we constantly go about making the claim that 'I' am doing this or that, but the basic expression of our life in the world is that we are completely powerless. We have no control, as our thinking and knowing mind is constantly distracted. We have no real knowledge or memory of what is happening. We are a machine run by the play of external phenomena, by the glamour of what we see, and yet we maintain the fixation that 'I' am doing it, that 'I' am in charge of any particular situation. When we have proper mindfulness--an alert and attentive mind--then we really begin to have power, in the sense that we understand what is happening within and around us. It is a matter of being alive or not being alive. The way we run our lives seems like an enormous joke, as if each one of us were a big, important leader in name and credentials, but had no power at all and didn't even know what was happening. We certainly do have a big name, 'I.' 'I' wants the world to know 'me' but it is all parroting, the machine is being operated from behind, because there is no alertness, no sense of being present or really alive. Our life is governed, dictated by our habits of confusion, obscuration, and distraction.
In order to change this situation, Buddhism introduces the skillful means of meditation practice. We must begin to learn to sit with ourselves and feel more comfortable with who we are. Meditation practice does not mean that we have something to meditate upon, or that something new or totally different is going to happen in our lives. Meditation simply means cultivating a wholesome and sane habit, which becomes an antidote for the unwholesome, confused, destructive habits that we have developed. Meditation practice enables us to experience our own thinking and knowing. Meditation is mindfulness, and in order to experience this we must repeatedly apply the methods, because any habit, wholesome or unwholesome, is developed by repetition.
In short, Buddhism is something universal, based on what is fundamentally true of the world and ourselves, no matter who we are, what problems we might have, or what our particular historical background might be.
This teaching was given by His Eminence at NY State University, Albany, on October 7, 1985. It was translated by Ngodup Burkhar and edited by Laura Roth, and appeared in Densal Vol. 7 No. 1.