Understanding Suffering and Controlling the Mind

(These questions were asked of Lama Zopa after a teaching on this topic.)

Q: How should we begin our practice?
A: The first important thing to do is study the dharma. If we do not have a firm basis of sound information, there will be no way for us to cleanse the mind. So first we have to study a correct method. We have to listen to correct explanations given to us by an experienced teacher. He or she must be someone whose life conforms to the practice taught. By following such a realised guru we proceed from studying the teachings to investigating them, seeing if they make sense in terms of our experiences. Then we must meditate on all we have learned, putting everything into practice in our daily life. In this way our wisdom will gradually develop.
Q: Is it possible that the methods of dharma taught in Buddhism, because they originated in an eastern culture, might not be appropriate for Westerners?
A: There is no one type of action that constitutes the practice of dharma. Dharma is not something that has a definite form. Although people may meditate with legs crossed and eyes closed, these external postures themselves are not the essential dharma.
An action is considered to be a part of dharma practice solely on the criterion of its effect on the mind. If delusions are eradicated and sufferings diminished by what we do then this is dharma. Thus even if we spend most of our time working inside an office in a crowded city or doing menial labour and the like, we can still be practising dharma. The essential thing is that our delusions decrease in strength.
Any type of action can be transformed into a dharma practice if it is done with the proper motivation. If we keep in mind the importance of working to eliminate our ignorance so that we can more effectively help others overcome their suffering, then whatever we do is dharma. Buddhism, as one of the great world religions, teaches many methods for purifying our motivation. These are applicable to situations found in all societies, East and West. Therefore, if a Westerner has the wisdom to discriminate between the essential dharma and the cultural forms it has adopted, he or she can benefit greatly from everything learned.
Q: What is the relationship of tantric philosophy and practices to the dharma?
A: There is no way we can practise Tantra if we do not have a foundation in the more fundamental dharma teachings. Tantra itself is a dharma practice and thus cannot be thought of outside the context of the whole dharma.
If we find a translation of tantric teachings somewhere and try to practise them without having an understanding of the essential dharma, there is no way for us to benefit. In fact, instead of these practices leading to a lessening of our delusions, they may only serve to increase our ignorance and mistaken conceptions.
The purpose of Tantra, like that of all dharma, is to escape from suffering by peeling away our mental obscurations. Tantra is considered to be very profound because it is the most rapid path to the goal of full enlightenment. But the motivation for engaging in tantric practices has to be our desire to gain this enlightenment as soon as possible so we can benefit all motherly beings with maximum effectiveness. Only if we practise with this enlightened motive of bodhicitta will tantra prove beneficial.
Thus, since the purposes and the motivation of tantra are exactly the same as those in the dharma as a whole, these higher teachings are fully dependent upon the general teachings. If they are thought of as something separate, they will only lead to further problems.
Q: How does one avoid becoming attached to spiritual practices?
A: Some people may desire to follow a spiritual path because they want to make an impression on someone else. They like the idea of being considered a holy or spiritual person. This is obviously a misuse of the dharma. But if we sincerely wish to achieve a true cessation of suffering because we desire peace for all others, and ourselves, then such a desire is not a negativity. It is not at all similar to the type of attachment that causes problems for us. In fact, at the initial stages of the path such a desire is most beneficial and is not something to be avoided.
Negative attachments always bring us suffering. With a greedy motivation we do non-virtuous actions which cause harm to ourselves and others. But the desire, interest and energy to practise dharma are not examples of such greed. They are quite different. The motivation to practise dharma spurs us on to engage in practices that will diminish, not increase, our suffering. Without it we would remain tied to the wheel of samsara and gain nothing from this precious human form.
There has to be a strong motivation before we follow a spiritual path because our inborn inclination is to follow the dictates of selfishness instead. Therefore, as the desire to practise dharma leads to beneficial results, we should not worry in the beginning that this feeling is an attachment to be avoided. We should continue our practices with as pure a motivation as possible and in this way reap great benefits for all beings. Thank you so much.