Talks by Venerable Tenzin Palmo
When I face an audience my main intention is how to say something that will be of use and benefit. Not just words that will be intellectually challenging or emotionally satisfying, but instruction that can be used and that will encourage people to try to help themselves — and others. The audience is usually not made up mainly of monks, nuns and hermits as it would have been in the past! It is an audience of ordinary people with families, professions and normal social obligations. Therefore it is NOT appropriate to talk as though they are people who have outwardly renounced the world and have nothing to do all day but formal Dharma practice.
The fact is that these often sincere and dedicated Dharma followers have very little time for formal practice. So I try to find words that will be of help and encouragement to people in this situation because otherwise the Dharma would have no meaning for them. In the past in some traditions there tends to have been an over-emphasis on sitting meditation as the sole means to enlightenment and daily life with family and work has been seen as an obstacle to practice. To redress this imbalance, it needs to be pointed out that our everyday lives— when lived with awareness and open-heartedness— are the very basis of our Dharma practice. Our relationships and the daily round are the means by which we cultivate the qualities needed on the path. So these talks are not sophisticated expositions of Buddhist philosophy nor detailed instruction on meditation practice. They are simply words of encourage- ment to remind ordinary people that we all have the potential for inner transformation and we can all do it if we would only try. Tenzin Palmo
The First Teaching Retreat
Basically, there are two essential qualities that we require in Buddhist practice. The first is that we be able to withdraw from society for a time, be it a few hours, a few days, a few months or a few years. The other requirement is being able to take whatever we have gained from our experience of isolation and bring it back to the world — to our relationships and into our everyday life. Like breathing in and breathing out, we need both. Sometimes people are very impressed by hearing about the merit of retreats— three years, seven years, life-long retreats— and we have the idea that maybe if we could do that too, then we could really get some- where. But we are ordinary people. We can’t do that, so we feel that there is not much hope that our practice will become very profound. But actually, it is not so much the quantity as the quality that counts.
Anyone can sit in a three-year retreat with a distracted mind and not gain very much from it. Or anyone can sit for a three day retreat, very focused on what one is doing in the practice, and even in three days can experience some transformation. So I think it’s not a matter of the length of time, or how many mantras you do, how many prostrations you do, how many this, how many that. It is not a spiritual bank account that we are trying to accumulate. The important question we always have to ask is— fundamentally, has there been any change? The great pandita of the 11th century said that the critical issue of judging any kind of retreat practice is whether at the end of it our negative emotions — our anger, our greed, the basic delusions of our mind— has been lessened or not.
Even if we have been in retreat for 12 years, nothing has been attained if we still have the same internal problems, the same anger, the same clinging to things, the same attachment and greed, the same basic delusion of the mind. It doesn’t matter how many millions of mantras we have done, how many inner tantras we have accomplished. This is very important. All these practices are nothing if they do not transform the mind. If the mind is the same as the one we went in with, we have not progressed. Even worse, perhaps we are very proud because we feel we are great practitioners now. We are very pleased with ourselves, and we say, “I have done that retreat and I’m expert in this practice”. In fact, that is adding defilements on top of the ones which we have not managed to remove. We now have new ones! Please understand that this is very, very impor- tant. Any practice that we do is for aiding the mind, transforming the mind so that we can genuinely help others. If this doesn’t happen, and we just become kind of smart and satisfied that we are such good Dharma practitioners because we do three hours of meditation every day, always do our practice and let everyone know how often we do our practice and how early we get up— then what is the use? Do you understand?
The whole of our Dharma practice is to reduce our Ego, not to increase it. We have to be careful of this. It is not good to become a professional Dharma person, making sure that everybody sees we are very spiritual, we are such good vegetarians, we never smoke, we don’t go to karaoke bars, we are not like those worldly people. We are professional spiritual people. We are very pleased with ourselves. Of course the Ego loves this. Ego really pets itself. “Look at me, I’m such a superior person to these deluded people around me, I’m so much more disciplined, I’m so much more controlled.” So we have to watch. We have to be careful that in the Dharma practice our intention is quite pure. Because our delusion and our tricky Ego can end up actually reinforcing the very problems which we are trying to eradicate. It just becomes another way for the Ego to sit back and feel very good. This is going to happen with people who do retreats; they will have a sense of self-satisfaction that they have done this kind of practice.
The Benefit of Retreats
Having said that, it is very good to take time out from our everyday lives, spend the whole day and what we can of the night totally concentrated on our spiritual practice and not be distracted during this time by our ordinary daily concerns. There is no doubt this can be extremely beneficial. There is the question then of whether it is more beneficial to go into group retreat or solitary retreat. I personally would suggest that we start with group retreats. In a group retreat you have the support of everyone else around you. Also, because everybody is sitting in a group, you can’t start dithering around or suddenly think, “Oh, this is useless,” and go make a cup of tea. You have to sit, however you are feeling. Even if you wake up in the morning with a headache, you still have to sit. You can think of thousands of things you have to do, but you still have to sit. It reinforces the discipline. Perhaps if one has never done a retreat before and one starts on ones own, it’s very easy for it to start off quite strong and than get weaker and weaker andin the end it doesn’t exist any more. In a group that doesn’t happen. Also, in a group there is usually a group leader or a teacher and that is also very helpful, because the teacher will co-ordinate everyone’s effort in the same direction and give instructions and advice. If you have problems, there is someone you can ask. If one is by oneself, then there are problems. One may or may not be disciplined, or one may be too disciplined and force oneself too much. Also, dealing with the mind is always a very delicate operation. In one way, the whole of the universe is contained within our own mind; we have infinite levels, infinite depths. Normally we access just a very, very small and shallow level of the mind’s potential. So during a retreat when we are giving all our attention to our practice, when the surface of the mind begins to calm down, it opens up the flood gates of all kinds of experiences and many unknown levels of the psyche. We have not had access to this before, and what is happening can be very frightening. Even good experiences can be frightening. You don’t know what the mind is going to throw out. In the mind there are both angels and devils, and one doesn’t know which one is coming through the open gateways. Therefore it is very beneficial initially when one is practicing to be in the hands of qualified teachers to guide one, and to be in the company of others. If initially one thinks to do a intensive retreat, one would be advised to do so in the company of others. This is because then one learns how to practice correctly and learns the kind of pace which we should adopt in our practice. Because this is also another point. There has to be a balance between being too lax— you know, not putting enough effort into it, not spending enough time on it in which case not much will be achieved— and pushing too hard. On the whole, for most people who are in retreat by themselves, the fault is usually the second one. People push themselves too hard. Our expectations of what we should be achieving are too high and unrealistic.
A word about achieving. You know, people feel they must always be achieving. “I must achieve something, I’m going to get something out of it in this retreat, right. Got to do it.” That is very counter-productive. It just creates more tension in the mind, more stress. These qualities of mind of wanting to achieve, of wanting to get something, are tremendous barriers in themselves. And usually people just end up with what we call Loong— a kind of imbalance of Qi, when the subtle elements of the body become completely unbalanced. Then people can be very sick. They get violent headaches, they feel very ill— they feel very angry, irritable and tense. It’s quite a serious thing because when that hap- pens, it is very difficult to do any practice. Any practice one does will make it worse. It’s like a vicious circle, because then when you do some practice, you get more tense. Then that tension will create more Loong and it will just go round and round and round. So it’s very important when we practice, to be really in tune with our inner sense of what is appropriate, and not to have an outer goal that we are trying to achieve. We are not taking a business attitude into the Dharma realms. The whole idea of achievement is Ego, and we are trying to drop all that. “I did a hundred million mantras, they only did ten.” We are back again to this quantity issue of “I did this much, I accom- plished that much.” This is totally counter-productive. This is not what we are meant to be doing, carrying that worldly Ego-driven mind frame into our Dharma practice. We are trying to see through that, relax the mind and learn how to drop and see through the Ego and all the Ego’s aims and goals. Somebody asked the lama, “What is the aim and goal of meditation?” He replied, “In a way, meditation is dealing with the very idea of having an aim.” Why don’t we sit and practice the practice, just because it’s a nice thing to do and not because we want to achieve anything? We don’t want to get anything out of it, we just find it nice to sit. Really, it’s just very nice to sit, do your practice, do your meditation— what could be a nicer thing to do? That in itself is enough, and if we can relax our mind but at the same time completely absorb ourselves into our practice because we enjoy doing it, then the results will take care of themselves. So we mustn’t look at the retreat situation as a kind of tutorial intensive before the exam. It’s a time to really just be completely knowing what we are doing right now, and just doing it.