How To Avoid Fantasies When Deciding to Follow A Spiritual Path

How To Avoid Fantasies When Deciding to Follow A Spiritual Path

Before we decide to follow a path of spiritual teaching, whatever the culture or creed from which it came, it is necessary to investigate our motivation for doing so. The main reason we become interested in following a teaching is not because we have nothing else to do, or because we need to keep busy, but because we want something different in our lives from what we see around us. When we discover the way "normal" people (who find nothing important in their existence) live, and when we see that the activities with which we have become accustomed to filling our lives do not solve the problem of the suffering that our existence in the cycle of samsara brings us, we realize we have to do something different from our everyday life. 

Most people do not try to understand these things, and what lies beyond their understanding does not exist for them. What we as spiritual practitioners are trying to discover, what we are trying to do, has no interest for them. They do not believe anything they cannot see with the naked eye. We must avoid such an extreme of blindness, but neither should our spiritual quest become a kind of spiritual fantasy, a way of avoiding everyday reality.

It is important first of all to understand death and rebirth, as it is through awareness of the cycle of suffering that we first approach the teaching. Through investigation we can realize that our human existence, our precious human birth, gives us a great opportunity, since through our contact with the teachings we can learn how to use our intelligence to examine our thoughts and observe how they give rise to our attachment, and we can discover how to bring our grasping and the consequent cycle of suffering to an end.

Incidentally, spiritual teachings are not limited to the human dimension; even animals may practice and achieve realization. In fact, there are stories of masters who were able to communicate with animals and who transmitted teachings to them. For example, there is a story about one such master at the beginning of this century who used to communicate with yetis, goats, and pigeons. One day a pigeon came to the tent where this master was giving a teaching. The master interrupted the teaching and went outside, sat down in front of the pigeon, and communicated with it without words. The bird was very weak and could not sit in the right posture, so the master put some rice in a bowl and set the bird in a nook in the rice so that it could assume the meditation position. After receiving teachings in the correct meditation posture for a few moments, the pigeon died and attained liberation.

Human or animal, in order to bring the cycle of samsara to an end, we must discover the source of suffering. This is the thinking mind that gives rise to the passions and to attachment. The only way to overcome the poisons of the five passions and their manifestations is to bring the mind under control. This can be done through practicing the teachings that bid us to observe ourselves in order to understand and, through practice, overcome our grasping mind. In this way the teachings guide us to know the underlying nature of the mind and integrate its true condition with our daily life.

But many people, critical of Dzogchen, question why we need to practice at all if, as according to Dzogchen, the primordial state is already the enlightened state. If our true nature is already Buddhahood, what is the need to cultivate enlightenment? We cannot side-step these criticisms since, according to Dzogchen, Buddhahood is indeed our natural state; we do not create it, but simply discover it through our meditation. But if we simply agree with our critics, this would mean there is no need to practice. These are important things to think about. We must answer that although the natural state of the mind is primordially pure, there are two ways of being pure. Defilements, or obscurations, are not in the nature of the mind (sems nyid) but in the moving mind (sems), so they can be purified. It is as in the Tibetan story of the old beggar woman who slept on a pillow of gold every night: she was rich, but since she did not appreciate the value of gold, she thought she was poor. In the same way, the primordial purity of our mind is of no use to us if we are not aware of it and do not integrate it with our moving mind. If we realize our innate purity but only integrate with it from time to time, we are not totally realized. Being in total integration all the time is final realization. But many people prefer thinking and speaking about integration to actualizing it.

Often, Dzogchen practitioners say, "You cannot think or talk about Dzogchen because it is ineffable." But it is not like that: Dzogchen experience is beyond thoughts and words, but we practitioners are not beyond doubts and questions, and we need to have them resolved. We cannot simply say, "I am a Dzogchen practitioner, I don't want to have doubts." Saying this is not enough to get rid of them, so it is important to think about these matters, otherwise we will remain in the state of doubt and not achieve the pure state. For example in Dzogchen, if we say that our natural state is spontaneously perfected, we mean that we already have the quality of realization in ourselves and that it is not something we have to get from outside. But even though it is a quality that is innate, we have to develop it. The traditional analogy is to the way the quality of butter already exists in milk: to get the butter we have to churn the milk.

Choosing a Path

When we decide that we want to follow a spiritual path, usually we choose teachings that we think will be beneficial for us, but often we make this choice in a very limited way, according to how we feel at the time or according to what path we find intellectually stimulating; or else we have a limited idea of what we feel is important for us according to the circumstances. When our feelings or our ideas or the circumstances change, we change our practice. In this way we are continually changing practices and finally get fed up because nothing happens and nothing seems to work. So it is important not to seek and view teachings in this way and instead of choosing practices because of circumstances, we should try to be aware of what the long-term benefits are of the various practices. For example, Tibetans do many practices for wealth and long life, and sometimes it can be very important to do such practices, but they are not the main practices, and particularly not so in Dzogchen. It is more important to understand the fundamental aim and meaning of the teachings and then to apply them.

Before putting into practice the meditation instructions we receive, it is necessary and important to listen to the teachings we receive in the correct way. One of the major problems beginners have is that they receive many different teachings, as if they were throwing a lot of mail into a big post-bag. What then happens,  the letter they want, the specific teaching they need at a particular moment, might be at the bottom of the bag. It is important instead to know exactly where to put each part of the teachings we receive: this means knowing which stage of practice we have reached, what understanding we have, and which practices to apply. We cannot, and should not, start by trying indiscriminately to practice everything. And it is important to relate what we hear to our own personal experience: there is nothing that we cannot relate to our own selves. We must understand what the terms used in the teachings refer to through our own practice and relate them to our own experience.

Dealing with Confusion About Practice

Normally, of course, there is confusion in our lives in terms of our work and our relationships with other people. But in regards to the teaching, confusion often leads us to rely too much on the master: we do not try to see things by ourselves but instead give complete responsibility to another person. Even concerning our daily lives we ask the teacher what we should do and where we should go! We become too dependent, and when our lives do not work out the way we want, we change practices and teachers. 

This process repeats itself continually and nothing very profound ever happens, and in the end we may feel we have wasted our time by practicing. In a way this is true, as we have tried to do something positive and in the end have achieved nothing; but this is because we have approached the practice in the wrong way, without first establishing a foundation. It should not be this way, because in undertaking a practice we are trying to bring some benefit and peace to our minds. The principal aim and final result of practicing is realization. The secondary results of the practice are to remove all the obstacles from our minds so that we lead better, more calm, and more peaceful lives in order to have the opportunity to practice. Otherwise, final realization is very far away. Unless we know how to apply these practices in our daily lives, they will be of very little help to us. So it is important on entering into the teaching and becoming practitioners to learn to apply the practices in a simple way, without having any confusion in ourselves about the fundamental base of the individual. We must know ourselves, through the direct experience of our own mind and our own natural state rather than knowing in a theoretical way what the teachings say about the base.

According to the Dzogchen teachings, the fundamental base of the individual, understood by insight gained through practice, is the inseparability of clarity and emptiness in the primordial state or natural condition. We are introduced to this understanding through our experience of practice, which is confirmed by the master's teachings and explanations, and we try to develop it further through the practice of meditation. Meditation is practiced in all spiritual paths, and focused concentration in the early stages of the path and conceptless and focusless contemplation in the later stages constitute the path of Dzogchen. The later contemplation practices particular to Dzogchen are trekcho and togel; however, before embarking on these practices, it is necessary to have established a firm base in meditation through concentration practice.

This article is excerpted from the book:

Wonders of the Natural Mind by Tenzin Wangyal. Wonders of the Natural Mind
by Tenzin Wangyal.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, NY, USA. ©2000.

Info/Order this book.


About The Author

Tenzin Wangyal RinpocheTenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a lama in the Bon tradition of Tibet, is the founder and director of The Ligmincha Institute (Charlottesville, VA), an organization dedicated to the study and practice of the teachings of the Bon tradition. He was born in Amritsar, India, after his parents fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and received training from both Buddhist and Bon teachers, attaining the degree of Geshe, the highest academic degree of traditional Tibetan culture. He has been in the United States since 1991 and has taught widely in Europe and America. Rinpoche is also author of Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep.

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