(Tibetan Buddhist Lay Practitioners in Their Daily Lives)
The Third World Buddhist Forum
Tibetan Buddhist Lay Practitioners in Their Daily Lives
Sunny Yat-Kwong Lai
There are not many Buddhist monks and nuns in Hong Kong but Buddhism followers and Practitioners are estimated to be of several hundred thousand. Influenced by the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in Europe and United States many people in Hong Kong become interested in Tibetan Buddhism, thus a lot of centres have sprung up. The level of understanding of the teachings by these people varies. People living in the modern society face a lot of problems and difficulties in life and when these occured can Buddhism philosophy and teachings help them to resolve their grievouses? Can Buddhism teachings and practice be useful and applied in their daily life? Is there a particular path to follow? Do Dzongchen practices by layman practitioners be able to achieve enlightenment?
There are a lot of questions confronting modern days Buddhists. For example are there any social boudaries? Is Tibetan Buddhism for the rich and the privilege only? Can women practitioners be able to do as well as men practitioners? Practitioners in Tibet are not vegetarian and will their diet affect the practice? How do people balance their daily life and spiritual practice? Can Buddhism help to overcome ones’ obstacles?
Looking back at history, Indrabodhi, an Indian King, was one of the great masters of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism; though enjoying all the luxury in life as a king Indrabodhi was a great accomplished practitioner. While Tilopa (988-1069 AD) on the other hand was a worker in producing sesame oil before he became the founder of the Kagyu sect and a great accomplished practitioner. There is no such thing as the rich can practice Tibetan Buddhism and the poor cannot. As we all know Buddha Sakyamuni was a prince living a respectable life, confronted by the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death he became a monk to seek liberation. Though we are all facing such sufferings we lack the reflective virtue of Buddha. Further more, Machig Labdron, founder of the Chod tradition in Tibetan Buddhism, was a woman accomplished practitioner. Thus, Buddhism can be practiced and attained accomplishment by everyone irrespective of social status, gender or age.
Refrain from killing and taking vegetarian diet
The essence of Buddhist practice is self-reflection, to fix our inappropriate behavior. Nowadays some people use to judge others with their limited knowledge in Buddhism, not realizing that such criticisms might generate more misunderstandings on Buddhism among others. Adopting a vegetarian diet is an example. We have to realize that the family can be taken as a place for practice to the lay Buddhists. Mahayana Buddhism requires non-killing from the starting point of compassion, which is translated into the ethics of not eating the fresh of living beings. However, if one is a Buddhist and ask your family members, who are not yet Buddhists, not to eat meat, they might get upset. There are no points creating disputes because one begins practicing Buddhism.
On the contrary, we have to let those around you know the very motive of taking vegetarian diet is to nurture compassion. By setting an example to your family, your family members could gradually follow your practice and develop a compassionate mind. The vegetarian diet is also good to our health. There are many toxins in meat which may lead to various diseases. From the mind-only perspective, the root of all disease is our greed, hatred, ignorance, jealousy and attachment. Inappropriate diet can be a source of our illnesses.
When deciding whether to be a vegetarian, we have to understand some of the facts too. From a historical point of view, there are two main reasons for Chinese Buddhist monks to be vegetarians. First, the Emperor Liang Wu was very interested in Buddhism, as he read a scripture and found the benefits of being a vegetarian, he ordered all monks to become vegetarians and not to kill any animals. From then on, this became a rule among monks. Lay persons took this practice too, so many people voluntarily became vegetarians, whether both short-term or long-term.
Influencing family members
Similarly, it is something nice for lay Buddhists to become volunteer workers out of bodhicitta, but if by doing so, one has no time to take care of the family and create family problems, this kind of behaviors (having compassion to outsiders but not to the family members) is inappropriate. After Buddha Sakyamuni was enlightened, he went back to his home town to teach his own tribe and in fact before he left home to become a monk, he told his father that he would come back and teach him once he gets enlightened.
Lord Buddha showed great respect to his seniors. When his father passed away, he deliberately went back home, taking care of the funeral. As we actualize Buddhist teachings in our daily life, we let our family members believe in Buddhism.
How should lay Buddhists face adversity of life? Some people claim that they are too indulged in Buddhist practice and don’t care too much about their duties in the workplace when they should. Practicing the Dharma should not be an excuse for affecting their duties. Devotion in work is a kind of practice. Again, indulgence in Buddhism practices should not be an excuse for alienation with others.
How should we handle the attacks from others? Here is a story. When Rahula and Sariputta were begging in Rajagaha, a rascal filled Sariputta’s bowl with sand, and hit Rahula’s head with a wooden stick. Sariputta comforted Rahula and told him to endure humiliation. People who can tolerate the insult are the bravest, as there is no power greater than this behavior. He stayed calm after hearing this. Upon knowing this account, Lord Buddha said, “a person with wisdom understands the karma, overcome their anger even being insulted. This is the way one can find peace and avoid disasters. Forbearance is a boat in the sea, which can go through all the difficulties. Forbearance is a good medicine of the illness, which can help and save the patients. The reason why I get enlightened and can walk through the Three Realms is that I realize the virtue of forbearance.”
”Acquaintance with those whom you dislike” is one of the eight sufferings in the human realm. It is common to encounter this situation. On the one hand, whether one can handle it depends on one’s own practice and on the other hand, we can also see this from the law of karma that such a circumstance is in fact a result of the poor interpersonal relationships we created in our previous lives. Hatred will bring us painful experiences, however, people who are being hated won’t sympathize our pain! Therefore, letting go these foes is in fact letting go oneself.
”To purify one’s mind is the teaching of the Buddhas”. The Buddhist dharma is in fact a way to protect one’s mind. In Theravada Buddhism, it is taught that in order to practice kindness, one should learn to be kind to oneself. Like mothers caring their children, one should truthfully understand and protect one’s mind. People nowadays always say that there are opportunities in crises. Going through the difficulties is the development of wisdom and is a kind of blessing. It is also helpful to ask for help from Buddhas and Bodhisattvas when we are in difficulties.
Aligning with daily life
Another common question is whether one can leave their practice after they have retired. It is always good to start doing Buddhist practice early, the sooner the better. It is easier to learn when you have a good physical and mental health. Tibetan Buddhism requires practitioners to hold the enlightened mind in every moment in daily life, maintaining firmly the Buddha pride, i.e. visualizing clearly oneself as the same as the Buddha or a certain Buddhisattva. If one can keep this, how can one have wrong views or wrong deeds?
Such a practice in fact won’t affect one’s work since you are conducting your life as usual but with an enlightened mind. Only by doing so, one can attain enlightenment in this very life. That’s why practice is possible for busy people and there is no need to wait till retirement.
Self effort is also stressed in Tibetan Buddhism. The practitioner visualizes oneself as the yidam and can seek the help from dakinis or dharma protectors. There are different kinds of activity practices like pacifying, enriching and magnetizing. However, all these need the transmission of a Guru. Nowadays, some people are fond of learning Buddhism from books, in fact it is very difficult to get enlightenment without having a qualified Guru. Just like what is said in the Platform Sutra, only before Bhismagarjitasvararaja Buddha, enlightenment without a Guru is possible. The Bhismagarjitasvararaja Buddha symbolises the beginning of time. In other words, enlightenment without a Guru is simply impossible.
The path, comprising the stages of accumulation, reinforcement, seeing, practicing and ultimate accomplishment was portrayed in the Deeds of the Bodhisattva. It is a road map to enlightenment. In Tibetan Buddhism, one is required to generate the mind, accumulate merit and remove obscurations before seeing the path. The ‘minds’ to be generated are renunciation and bodhicitta.
Renunciation and bodhicitta
Renunciation is the urge to leave samsara, the cycle of existence and sufferings. In the days of the Buddha, Indians will become monk when they get old until their death. Those who look for ultimate truths or Buddhist preachers are all monks. However, there are great sages like Vimalakirti and Madam Excellent Garland were lay persons. In Zen Buddhism, Mr Pan in the Tang dynasty, again a layman, was highly respected. In Tibetan Buddhism, the great master Padmasambhava showed himself as a layman too. After the reign of King gLang darma, Tibetan Buddhism was inherited by lay practitioners. So we see monks and laymen cooexist in the Tibetan Buddhist sangha. There were a lot of great masters who are lay person, whether in Nyingma, Kagyu or Sakya sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
When the Sixth Patriarch in Zen Buddhism requested teaching from the Fifth, he showed as a lay person. He was formally ordained as monk only after he began to preach. He said clearly that, “the Dharma exists in this world, it does not go beyond worldly awareness, looking for enlightenment other than this world is like searching for horns in rabbits”. Regardless your status, the most important thing is to keep an open mind, free from attachment and aligning with the Buddhist teachings in one’s behaviors. What comes first is renunciation rather than seeking for an identity of a monk.
Second is about bodhicitta. Bodhi means enlightenment. Buddha is the enlightened one. Bodhicitta means ‘enlightened mind’. It has two aspects: work for benefits of all sentient beings, and the unfolding of wisdom.
The first aspect is to treat everyone the same with compassion non-discriminatively. The enlightenment of the Buddha came about as he observed the army of the demons and realize that this is the result of his own past actions. From this, he realized the Four Noble Truths, the Twelve Nidanas, and liberated from the cycle of existence. He realized the way to benefit oneself and others. With compassion, even small actions like offering lamps to the Buddha or chanting a mantra are all beneficial. But as Confucius said, “Inclined to benevolence but not to learning, clumsiness would be the failure”, having compassion alone is not sufficient to really help sentient beings. Just like a disabled mother who watched her child swept away by the flood helplessly, who is powerless even though she has the compassion. Another mother, who gave money to her son to buy drugs to fulfill his addiction, it is more harm than love. Therefore, the second aspect is to clear our own mind and realize emptiness.
The path of five stages in real life
As for the accumulation stage in Mahayana, there are two kinds of accumulation, the accumulation of merits and the accumulation of wisdom. For example, when we go for a trip, we will need to prepare for money and the arrangement (e.g., food, housing, map, tour guide) during the trip as well. We may need to clear up some of the obstacles during the trip. We should perform more pujas, alms giving and setting free of fish to accumulate merit. The accumulation of wisdom includes studying Buddhist scriptures, hearing and learning Buddhist teachings and approaching a spiritual master. Doing prostrations and repentance practices are ways to clear the obstacles in the path.
Understanding and actualizing Buddhist teachers are very different levels. Like soccer, commenting a match and actually playing the game are different. If we do not have strength and effort, we are bound to lose. Therefore, understanding alone is not sufficient in Buddhism.
Accumulation is follows by the reinforcement stage. Just like cooking, after buying the ingredients from the market, we have to go home and cook. It is a path of the saints. In daily life, we should practice meditation to purify our heart continuously. After understanding emptiness, we have to start doing various meditation and contemplation practices. Only by doing so, one can realize the suchness of all phenomena.
In Tibetan Buddhism, emptiness is directly tackled in both the Generation and Completion stages. This let one proceed to the seeing stage, reaching different stages of the Bodhisattva. In there, one can attain Great Mirror Wisdom in all time during the day and night, no matter one is walking, standing, sitting or sleeping
In the practicing stage, Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma sect in particular, base its practices in the above view, and merge with daily experience. It starts with the Four Thoughts that Change the Mind, contemplating the impermanence of all phenomena, looking into one’s own mind and empathy of others. Having a deep experience of impermanence and suffering, realizing the karmic laws, taming one’s mind, speeches and behaviours, bodhicitta is thus generated.
What follows is the extraordinary preliminary practice which includes accumulation and purification practices. In particular, when one meet desirable objects, including comfort, fame, fortune, in daily life, we offer them to the Guru, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, at the same time, offer to all sentient beings. All the merits thus obtained are offered too.
In Tibetan Buddhist practice, Buddha Pride is maintained in body, speech and mind. All deeds during daily life are held with no difference with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. We realize that we are living in the pure land of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. As said in the Sustra that every sentient beings possesses the Buddha nature, we see all sentient being as future Buddhas, and like what is said in the Amitabha Sustra, every sound is in fact chanting Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In Anuyoga, prana, nadis and bindus are practiced, being blessed by the light of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, relieving all sufferings. And as one proceeds to Atiyoga, one won’t part from Bodhicitta even for an instance. In this meditational stage, one realizes that adversity is a blessing, the origin of all thoughts is wisdom. Letting go , one can attain great accomplishment whether or not one stays in a monastery or at home!