“The Mark of a True Practitioner”

Here is another excerpt from my transcript of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, given at UCLA in 1997.

I taped the entire four days of teachings, some 24 hours worth of tape, transcribed it by hand, and then, because I did not have a computer, typed it out the old-fashioned way on a typewriter. Needless to say, it was a time-consuming and tedious process, but when it was completed, I knew the teachings well.

This is a verbatim transcript, by the way. At the time, I didn’t feel comfortable trying to edit it. The Dalai Lama’s English translator had a tendency to use the US Army approach to lecturing (“Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.”) So there was a fair amount of redundancy. Not to mention that the English is a little choppy in places. Since that time, I just haven’t felt like tackling the job of cleaning it up.

In this section, the Dalai Lama talks about one’s attitude toward dharma and offers some practical advice on how to use it:

Since we have already had a little discussion about the nature of mind as part of one of the questions, I would like to cite here from the Prajna-paramita [Transcendent Wisdom] Sutra which reads “mind is devoid of mind, because the nature of mind is clear.”

When we talk about the nature of mind being luminous or clear light of course we can understand it at two levels: one, in the context of the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra and also, in context of Hevajra Tantra [a key Tantric or Vajrayana text]. One could say that the understanding of clear light, the nature of mind according to the Hevajra Tantra, could be seen as a perfection or culmination of clear light, according to the Wisdom sutras.

Yesterday we had discussions, from the Precious Garland, about the various dharmas and how, many of these dharmas could be present through the three doors of body, speech, and mind.

Generally speaking, when we talk about the practice of dharma, one should know that we are talking about a form of practice and training at the level of body or heart. Aryadeva [Nagarjuna’s closest pupil] in his Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way, identifies three principle approaches to religious life: one is ritual, which has more to do with physical action and moral conduct; a second type is a more basic form of verbal action, which has more to do with the recitation of mantra sounds and so on; and a third type which approaches at the level of mind through thought and contemplation. He states that so far as dharma practice of the Buddha is concerned, it is the third approach that one should pursue.

A true practitioner of dharma constantly checks one’s own mind, subjects it to analysis.

Given that dharma is like a medicine of the heart and mind, one must utilize it in the correct manner. When we are ill, we use medication and the medication is aimed at not only eliminating the symptoms but also by getting at the root of the conditions that cause the illness. Similarly, we should be able to use the dharma at the right instance, when it is needed the most, through constant self-awareness, mindfulness, and self-investigation. When one confronts a situation where, within the mind, there is any possibility of even an inkling of an arisal of negative emotions or non-virtuous thoughts – it is at that moment the dharma should be able to counter-act these disruptive forces.

Because negative action is an expression of the negative motivation or negative states of mind, if you are able to apply dharma at the right instance, before it becomes expressed in negative action, then you will be able to deal with it at that time. Otherwise one’s practice will become as [ Word unclear] master said, “sometimes for some people, the dharma can only been seen when things are fine.” There is a verse that reads that some can only be a practitioner when their stomach is full and everything is like sunshine, but the moment he or she encounters a crisis, the dharma goes out the window and they are complaining and blaming everybody and they act worse than someone who has no belief in dharma practice. This is not how we should do.

Some of you may have heard this story, but I will tell it again. Once there was a master who was was previously a thief but was transformed and became a great dharma teacher. One day, in his meditation cell, he remembered that his benefactor was coming to visit, so he thought ‘I’d better prepare myself to look more impressive.’ So he arranged the altar in a more impressive way and laid down the offering of the water and so on. When everything was arranged properly, he sat down and examine his motivation to do this, and he realized that he was doing it not out of commitment to his spiritual practice, but rather so he could impress his benefactor. He realized his motivation was not really dharmic, it was out of worldly concern, to impress someone so that he would continue to support him financially. So, at that moment, he picked up a handful of dust and threw it on the altar and spoiled the whole thing. So when the benefactor came, there was no welcoming greeting and the benefactor looked around and the meditation cell was messy and the altar was covered with dust and he was rather shocked. And he went back and the story was heard by a great Kadampa master, who said: “That is the mark of a true practitioner!”

Also when you read the life story of the great meditation master, Milarepa, you also see that the true spirit of Buddhist practice is to constantly examine one’s motivation when one does something, so that the motivation becomes pure. Otherwise sometimes it is possible that one may engage in non-virtuous acts, even if on the surface such activity may seem like spiritual work.

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