What is a Buddhist?

Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen was a leading Tibetan lama and a human rights activist. He founded the Gaden Shartse Thubten Dhargye Ling (“Land of Flourishing Dharma”), a center in Long Beach, CA for the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism, in 1978.

gyeltsenI did not know him very well. I occasionally attended his dharma talks on Sunday mornings. He was very approachable. He often answered the phone at the center and you could engage him in a conversation. I always imagined that I could probably just show up any day and if he was available he would probably sit down with me and answer questions. I never did that. Long Beach is 30 miles away. It was a lousy excuse. I have always told people that for an opportunity to learn Buddha-dharma, you should be willing to travel as far as necessary. I should have practiced what I had preached.

He is gone now. He passed away in 2009. Fortunately we have audio tapes and videos of his teachings, and his books, although as far as I know he only published four. One of them is Mirror of Wisdom: Teachings on Emptiness. I was looking at it the other day and came across these words under the heading “What is a Buddhist”:

The Tibetan word for Buddhist is nang-pa, which literally means “one who is focused on inner reality.” This refers to someone who concentrates more on his or her inner world than on external phenomena. This is perhaps the most important point regarding Buddhist practice. Our primary goal is to subdue and transform our state of mind—our inner reality. In this way, we seek to improve all our actions of body and speech, but especially those of mind.”

The suffering within human beings cannot be transcended without the hard work of looking within and riding ourselves of delusions and attachments, work that heals and restores our original harmony with others and our environment.

I am afraid some people have the impression that Buddhism is all about transcending our mundane human existence to attain a supermundane state. It is to some extent understandable. In the past and even today, Buddha is presented as the “Perfect One,” superhuman, almost god-like, and the image that is predominate of a Buddhist is of the perfectly calm and uncommonly wise monk, who never craves for anything and never makes mistakes. But, that’s not it. A Buddhist, or a Buddha, is nothing more than an ordinary human being.

Another great teacher, Lama Anagarika Govinda, in A Living Buddhism for the West, put it this way:

The mere fact that the Buddha . . . led a full life in the world, with wife and child, and still attained enlightenment in that same life should teach us all not to obstruct our path through the enforced repression of normal human functions and capabilities. It is only through the fullness of experience and the living of a full human existence that we can attain to that turning within and transformation that alone can lead to the spontaneous experience of enlightenment.”

We talk a lot about emptiness, being a Buddhist is really about being full . . . a full human being.

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Like the Flow of a River

The meditation practiced by most people these days, known as “mindfulness,” is very simple and to some extent easy. I’ve always found that the real challenge is being consistent. Too often I approach my morning meditation with a begrudging attitude, as if the practice were something imposed on me, instead of something about which I should have a sense of eagerness.

A Buddhist teacher once gave a talk, and when he was finished he asked the people gathered around what they “practiced out of,” meaning what was their motivation for practice. He went around the room and received various answers and then came to the last person, a Japanese-American man. The teacher said to him, “Well, what do you practice out of?”

“Desperation?”

“No! Joy! You should practice out of great joy!”

The teacher was right. We should approach our practice with joy, and appreciation. It is truly a wonderful thing that we have this great tool for transformation. When I win over my begrudging attitude, I can feel how appreciation is the key that opens the door to enthusiasm. And then, it’s much easier to carry that enthusiasm over into my daily life and cultivate a genuine joy for living.

To sit and meditate is relatively easy. Joy, appreciation, and the rest of it is challenging. At least that has been my experience.

The late Geshe Gyeltsen (1923-2009), the marvelous Tibetan lama and human rights activist who founded the Thubten Dhargye Ling (“Land of Flourishing Dharma”) center in Long Beach, CA, wrote in his book Mirror of Wisdom,

Geshe Gyeltsen
Geshe Gyeltsen

The great Indian master, Chandrakirti, says that all kinds of accomplishments follow from diligence, consistency and enthusiasm. If we apply ourselves correctly to the proper practice we will eventually reach our destination. He says that if we don’t have constant enthusiasm, even if we are very intelligent we are not going to achieve very much. Intelligence is like a drawing made on water but constant enthusiasm in our practice is like a carving made in rock—it remains for a much longer time.

So, whatever practice each of us does, big or small, if we do it consistently, over the course of time we will find great progress within ourselves. One of the examples used in Buddhist literature is that our enthusiasm should be constant, like the flow of a river.”

The river represents flowing water, which in turn is a symbol for continuity and consistency. Rivers flow freely. When they meet obstacles such as rocks, water flows over them and keeps flowing. Eventually, it wears away the rocks.

In this manner, water can be hard, but as it says in the Tao Te Ching, nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. The takeaway here is that enthusiasm should not be forced, it must come naturally. Practice, too, should not be too hard or rigid. And yet, one thing I have learned in my 30 years as a Buddhist, is that those times when you want to practice the least is usually when you really need to practice the most.

To have a practice that flows like a river is to find the middle way.

Many, many years ago in New Orleans, long before they built the Riverfront up, I used to sit on the rocks beneath the Café du Monde, the legendary coffeehouse that serves beignets and coffee with chicory, and I would watch the water of the Mississippi River flow past the city, moving down toward the Gulf of Mexico. I was enthralled with the way that muddy water never stopped flowing, how it was ever constant. Of course, all rivers are like that, but there is something different about the Mississippi, perhaps because it’s so wide . . . and it just keeps moving, and you wonder how long has it been like that, how long will it continue . . . it makes you feel like you’re in the presence of eternity.

Did you ever stand and shiver,
Just because you were lookin’ at a river?

– Ramblin’ Jack Elliott singing about the Mississippi in “912 Greens”

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