Thoughts on Lay Practice in the West

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Thoughts on Lay Practice in the West

Postby SonamZangpo » Wed Apr 06, 2011 3:18 pm

Oh my, my life seems to be so dynamic, so wondrously changing and fluctuating. I have not frequented this forum in months! but to give some insight as to where I was a few months ago, you could read here for the long explanation: viewtopic.php?f=34&t=2332

The very short version is that I was intent on becoming a monk, and now I am not. So much has happened in the meantime. I've been evaluating what Buddhism means to me and what being a Buddhist means to me this whole time, taking a giant step back from the community and my typical practice to reflect on things. I feel like writing some of these thoughts down, and I often express myself best in writing when some sort of audience is involved, probably due to my training as a former English major! Feel free to read on if you want, or disregard, I'm simply writing this to collect my thoughts and feelings.

For clarity, I am writing this living in America, at the age of 23, belonging to the Karma Kagyu lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism, which is also regarded as Tibetan Buddhism. Just two days ago was the marker of two years since I had taken refuge, which is what brought on my wanting to write some thoughts down.

Now, I'm about to make some very broad generalizations from my own experience. These are not necessarily intended to be accurate, but as a rule of thumb, look at it this way- if what I say is applicable to you, then apply it. If not, then disregard it without negative attachment.

I'm someone who, for much of my life, focused on the abstract, the artistic, the philosophical, and so on. In recent months, though, I have been experiencing a paradigm shift to focusing on the practical and applicable. An example of this in my everyday life would be romance- I used to be a poetic, bleeding heart, hopeless romantic. Now, I have moved away from the ideology of romance, and more toward the practical. My ideals in romance now focus around a functional, productive relationship for progressing through and creating life.

Let's take a moment with the word ideology. Ideals. In America's current political climate, it's becoming more apparent that ideals are interfering with progression, and is causing a lot of conflict within the countries. People are becoming more intolerant of thinking different from their own, becoming more aggressively defensive of their ideals, and are beginning to exclusively surround themselves with only thoughts similar to theirs, obsessed with feeling their view is "right." I think this can be applied to practitioners as well, though in a much more subtle way. In a world where people need to lessen their attachments to ideals, I have come upon a single thought which has assisted me in going against the grain of those I come in contact with like that. I feel it is so important, to me at least, that I'm going to separate the thought on its own:

Always be willing to be wrong.

Most of our thoughts or view or opinions are highly, highly relative, so having a willingness to be wrong helps disperse some of the ignorance that comes with a relative, ego-centric view. Now, by this, I do not mean to say one should give up all their convictions and accept all other thoughts completely; however, it seems people become so centered in feeling correct that they unintentionally deny other thoughts involuntarily.

I took a moment to use the restroom and forgot where I was going with that. Isn't it so pleasantly humorous how fickle the mind can be at times?

In any case, I will return to ideals. I feel for students new to Buddhism, ideals can be an obstacle. They certainly were, and still are, to me. I feel a lot of students view enlightenment as a goal, with cultivating bodhicitta as a means to get there. I think the words should be reversed, though, that Bodhicitta is the goal, and Enlightenment is the means to attain ultimate bodhicitta. In truth, the two statements are essentially the same, but I think the thoughts and intents that go along with both statements in young minds could possibly differ radically. I, in my early experience, focused on things like the power of mantras, and feeling the need to seek out some state of tranquility. These things have tremendous merit in themselves, but my intent concerning them was mostly around self improvement. I felt that the improvement was the priority, and that easing the suffering of others was more something that came "after" things had become attained. I secluded myself from my samsaric peers, became something of an apartment hermit. That was good, and all, but I feel now that it was lacking. I had aspirations to become a monk, telling myself that I was simply "too spiritual" a person to exist properly in the lay world. That was selfish, though- looking back, I think the aspiration was more an attempt to escape. But what did I want to escape? The lay world, the thickest area of samsaric ignorance? Did I want to escape who I was in that world, or the stresses that came along with that world? I thought on and meditated on this a lot when I was in the process of trying to get into a monastery. I had a realization- no, not the realizations that come with practice that are highly spoke of and sought, instead, it was something a little more.... "Lay," I guess.

I felt a feeling of dread in taking up a monastic life, not from giving up material things, or indulgent habits, or anything of that sort. I knew how great living a spiritual life would be- unbothered by the day-to-day of a normal life, practicing tantric practice, receiving teachings and empowerments- even thinking on it now, it sounds wonderful. But there are so many people out in the world who DO have to deal with those things, who feel helpless to escape their suffering. I experienced a sudden shift in goals. It's sort of hard to put into words now. I don't wish to speak against monastic life or living apart from the lay world, since I do not view it as a bad thing, but I feel that for me, at this time, it isn't right for me. More contemporary teachers- even Rinpoches and lineage holders, have talked on how Buddhism as a whole needs to take on some new approaches in the west, both in how teachers instruct, and how students practice, and I feel this is true. I don't think the traditional ways should ever be given up, I just feel some new methods should be implemented, and a term I have heard passed around is "Engaged Dharma," or "Engaged Buddhism." While I'm not sure what others take these terms to mean, I view it as a way to apply the Buddha's teachings in a largely non-Buddhist world.

With that, let's tie this back in with America's climate concerning ideals. I'm not ignorant to how most people function. While a lot of people are tolerant of religions other than their own, even interested in the beliefs of other paths, it seems to come down to this- if someone precedes stating some sort of lesson or belief with a religious or spiritual term, it will most likely be discounted and possibly disregarded. I've been told bluntly, yet kindly "It's really great you believe that, but it's a Buddhist thing and I'm not Buddhist, so I don't really see the point." But let's step back from the label of Buddhism. Bodhicitta, Buddha Nature, is inherent in all sentient beings, it is our absolute realized state. So then, practicing Bodhicitta and holding the convictions of it isn't really Buddhist at all. It's something naturally occurring. Shakyamuni Buddha, it is said, taught each to their own capacity, which is why the Dharma wheel was turned three times. Then, to me, "Engaged Buddhism" is simply engaging others with dharma in their own capacity. If Boddhicitta is inherent, then, why mention Buddhism at all if it is going to obstruct someone absorbing what you say? That is how my thinking and practice has changed. Applicable Boddhicitta. Not everyone is ready to set out on the Dharma path, and yet they are still subject to the same suffering our practices try to ease and liberate. So, I engage people on their own terms.

People may not be open to hearing teachings, or meditation, or mantras, but people are generally pretty open to kindness and compassion. I try to live my life that way, in servitude to others. At first, it was difficult*, I felt I was laying my own needs aside for others, and it felt draining. But slowly, my own needs became serving others, granting them kindness in a society that is generally not so kind. There are opportunities to practice that everywhere- from encounters on the street to my place of work to my friends. The more I do it, the easier it becomes. It has become pleasant, but the pleasantries are secondary. I feel like the whole of Buddhism should be regarded that way- that anything pleasant that comes to the self from practice should be secondary.

*It's still difficult.

It's difficult for a separate reason, though. It's very easy to be pleasant and compassionate and kind to others, but that doesn't magically make all negativity in the self disappear. Oh, far from it. In some moments, combating someone being negative toward you with compassion is very easy, but I still have my ego, that hasn't gone away. Stress still happens, and builds, and when it builds and doesn't get resolved, it gets released, typically by betraying the virtue of loving-kindness with an expression of anger. But this is where I tie in the willingness to be wrong. Any negative thought or action toward another being, or even toward the self, is wrong. But I try not to be attached to being wrong. Tsem Tulku said in a delightful teaching** years ago "When you come across a difficult situation, don't run. If you run, go back, apologize, and make up for it. Don't run and be quiet. That is an offering to the Buddha." Reacting negatively toward someone could easily be placed in that statement (in regards to "a difficult situation"). I go back, apologize, and make up for it. If it was a time that passed and I will not see that person again, then at least doing something positive with the intention of apology and making up for it will be done. When you (and by you I mean myself) go back to apologize, make certain that it is authentic, that you (again, I mean myself) have let go of the negative attachment, so that your apology and further acts of kindness are untainted.

Now to tie all this back to how inherent Boddhicitta is: I don't feel like I'm doing anything remarkable. I don't seek commendation or reward. I don't even really think, at this point, anything I'm doing is particularly "Buddhist." Or rather, how to put it... doing such things, engaging people with compassion, and selfless loving-kindness, is just an inherent behavior now. It's not done "to be Buddhist." However, I get reminded that doing such things isn't entirely the norm. I'll be talking about doing something, or explaining what I was doing, to someone, particularly my girlfriend, and she sometimes remarks "Must be a Buddhist thing." Even when serving others, I find myself chiming off mantras or prayers of blessings for people to ease their suffering, and even then, I don't feel like I'm going out of my way to do anything. I think that's good. If there's anything I want someone to comment on is that. I feel like a lot of people in the lay world hold a distinction between "my everyday life" and "my Buddhist life" or something like that. I know I used to, and I know a few of the young adult Buddhists I've come across do. But I feel like there should be no distinction. I feel like our natural habits should also be compassionate habits. Buddhism may have taught me the importance of compassion and easing others suffering, but I think the capacity to do so is just natural, not a "Buddhist thing."

I suppose I should offer some nugget of wisdom or closing statement to all this, so I'll address younger new practitioners- if you're saying mantras and meditating, that's great, but I feel at least that if your everyday life isn't reflecting some sort of effort of Bodhicitta, that you're going to have a difficult time progressing. Put active, relative Bodhicitta as an immediate goal above all else.

Thanks for listening!

-Sonam

** Here's the teaching I was referring to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkICMrNG78M Tsem Tulku's teaching style has seem to change a lot since then, but there are some very practical lessons to be learned in this video.
Last edited by SonamZangpo on Mon Aug 29, 2011 7:55 am, edited 1 time in total.
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"It is more important to be kind than to be right."
(I acknowledge I do not follow the quote above this, that is why it is there! so I will be reminded every time I post! :) )
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Re: Thoughts on Lay Practice in the West

Postby White Lotus » Wed Apr 06, 2011 6:51 pm

just be kind, not only to others but also to yourself. intellectual conversation often goes against relationship. if your ideas confuse others, dont say anything, just love them... but, my gosh its nice when someone understands you! its sad that people are becomeing more intrenched in their views about things. this separates communities and individuals. try not to expect too much from others, its your own practice that matters...

and as for ordination, this is a terrible risk, if you dont live up to the standards, and sad if you later disrobe. i like the view that there is a sameness between ordained and laity, neither state favours enlightenment. actually i really respect the approach that hides practice from others for the sake of humility and practical care of others.

keep it up and remember, be kind to others and also to yourself. i can say this because i am nearly twice your age! forgive me if what i have said sounds at all presumptious. you already have wisdom. i can see that.

best wishes, White Lotus.
in any matters of importance. dont rely on me. i may not know what i am talking about. take what i say as mere speculation. i am not ordained. nor do i have a formal training. i do believe though that if i am wrong on any point. there are those on this site who i hope will quickly point out my mistakes.
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Re: Thoughts on Lay Practice in the West

Postby LastLegend » Wed Apr 06, 2011 7:26 pm

SonamZangpo wrote:Oh my, my life seems to be so dynamic, so wondrously changing and fluctuating. I have not frequented this forum in months! but to give some insight as to where I was a few months ago, you could read here for the long explanation: viewtopic.php?f=34&t=2332

The very short version is that I was intent on becoming a monk, and now I am not. So much has happened in the meantime. I've been evaluating what Buddhism means to me and what being a Buddhist means to me this whole time, taking a giant step back from the community and my typical practice to reflect on things. I feel like writing some of these thoughts down, and I often express myself best in writing when some sort of audience is involved, probably due to my training as a former English major! Feel free to read on if you want, or disregard, I'm simply writing this to collect my thoughts and feelings.

For clarity, I am writing this living in America, at the age of 23, belonging to the Karma Kagyu lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism, which is also regarded as Tibetan Buddhism. Just two days ago was the marker of two years since I had taken refuge, which is what brought on my wanting to write some thoughts down.

Now, I'm about to make some very broad generalizations from my own experience. These are not necessarily intended to be accurate, but as a rule of thumb, look at it this way- if what I say is applicable to you, then apply it. If not, then disregard it without negative attachment.

I'm someone who, for much of my life, focused on the abstract, the artistic, the philosophical, and so on. In recent months, though, I have been experiencing a paradigm shift to focusing on the practical and applicable. An example of this in my everyday life would be romance- I used to be a poetic, bleeding heart, hopeless romantic. Now, I have moved away from the ideology of romance, and more toward the practical. My ideals in romance now focus around a functional, productive relationship for progressing through and creating life.

Let's take a moment with the word ideology. Ideals. In America's current political climate, it's becoming more apparent that ideals are interfering with progression, and is causing a lot of conflict within the countries. People are becoming more intolerant of thinking different from their own, becoming more aggressively defensive of their ideals, and are beginning to exclusively surround themselves with only thoughts similar to theirs, obsessed with feeling their view is "right." I think this can be applied to practitioners as well, though in a much more subtle way. In a world where people need to lessen their attachments to ideals, I have come upon a single thought which has assisted me in going against the grain of those I come in contact with like that. I feel it is so important, to me at least, that I'm going to separate the thought on its own:

Always be willing to be wrong.

Most of our thoughts or view or opinions are highly, highly relative, so having a willingness to be wrong helps disperse some of the ignorance that comes with a relative, ego-centric view. Now, by this, I do not mean to say one should give up all their convictions and accept all other thoughts completely; however, it seems people become so centered in feeling correct that they unintentionally deny other thoughts involuntarily.

I took a moment to use the restroom and forgot where I was going with that. Isn't it so pleasantly humorous how fickle the mind can be at times?

In any case, I will return to ideals. I feel for students new to Buddhism, ideals can be an obstacle. They certainly were, and still are, to me. I feel a lot of students view enlightenment as a goal, with cultivating bodhicitta as a means to get there. I think the words should be reversed, though, that Bodhicitta is the goal, and Enlightenment is the means to attain ultimate bodhicitta. In truth, the two statements are essentially the same, but I think the thoughts and intents that go along with both statements in young minds could possibly differ radically. I, in my early experience, focused on things like the power of mantras, and feeling the need to seek out some state of tranquility. These things have tremendous merit in themselves, but my intent concerning them was mostly around self improvement. I felt that the improvement was the priority, and that easing the suffering of others was more something that came "after" things had become attained. I secluded myself from my samsaric peers, became something of an apartment hermit. That was good, and all, but I feel now that it was lacking. I had aspirations to become a monk, telling myself that I was simply "too spiritual" a person to exist properly in the lay world. That was selfish, though- looking back, I think the aspiration was more an attempt to escape. But what did I want to escape? The lay world, the thickest area of samsaric ignorance? Did I want to escape who I was in that world, or the stresses that came along with that world? I thought on and meditated on this a lot when I was in the process of trying to get into a monastery. I had a realization- no, not the realizations that come with practice that are highly spoke of and sought, instead, it was something a little more.... "Lay," I guess.

I felt a feeling of dread in taking up a monastic life, not from giving up material things, or indulgent habits, or anything of that sort. I knew how great living a spiritual life would be- unbothered by the day-to-day of a normal life, practicing tantric practice, receiving teachings and empowerments- even thinking on it now, it sounds wonderful. But there are so many people out in the world who DO have to deal with those things, who feel helpless to escape their suffering. I experienced a sudden shift in goals. It's sort of hard to put into words now. I don't wish to speak against monastic life or living apart from the lay world, since I do not view it as a bad thing, but I feel that for me, at this time, it isn't right for me. More contemporary teachers- even Rinpoches and lineage holders, have talked on how Buddhism as a whole needs to take on some new approaches in the west, both in how teachers instruct, and how students practice, and I feel this is true. I don't think the traditional ways should ever be given up, I just feel some new methods should be implemented, and a term I have heard passed around is "Engaged Dharma," or "Engaged Buddhism." While I'm not sure what others take these terms to mean, I view it as a way to apply the Buddha's teachings in a largely non-Buddhist world.

With that, let's tie this back in with America's climate concerning ideals. I'm not ignorant to how most people function. While a lot of people are tolerant of religions other than their own, even interested in the beliefs of other paths, it seems to come down to this- if someone precedes stating some sort of lesson or belief with a religious or spiritual term, it will most likely be discounted and possibly disregarded. I've been told bluntly, yet kindly "It's really great you believe that, but it's a Buddhist thing and I'm not Buddhist, so I don't really see the point." But let's step back from the label of Buddhism. Bodhicitta, Buddha Nature, is inherent in all sentient beings, it is our absolute realized state. So then, practicing Bodhicitta and holding the convictions of it isn't really Buddhist at all. It's something naturally occurring. Shakyamuni Buddha, it is said, taught each to their own capacity, which is why the Dharma wheel was turned three times. Then, to me, "Engaged Buddhism" is simply engaging others with dharma in their own capacity. If Boddhicitta is inherent, then, why mention Buddhism at all if it is going to obstruct someone absorbing what you say? That is how my thinking and practice has changed. Applicable Boddhicitta. Not everyone is ready to set out on the Dharma path, and yet they are still subject to the same suffering our practices try to ease and liberate. So, I engage people on their own terms.

People may not be open to hearing teachings, or meditation, or mantras, but people are generally pretty open to kindness and compassion. I try to live my life that way, in servitude to others. At first, it was difficult*, I felt I was laying my own needs aside for others, and it felt draining. But slowly, my own needs became serving others, granting them kindness in a society that is generally not so kind. There are opportunities to practice that everywhere- from encounters on the street to my place of work to my friends. The more I do it, the easier it becomes. It has become pleasant, but the pleasantries are secondary. I feel like the whole of Buddhism should be regarded that way- that anything pleasant that comes to the self from practice should be secondary.

*It's still difficult.

It's difficult for a separate reason, though. It's very easy to be pleasant and compassionate and kind to others, but that doesn't magically make all negativity in the self disappear. Oh, far from it. In some moments, combating someone being negative toward you with compassion is very easy, but I still have my ego, that hasn't gone away. Stress still happens, and builds, and when it builds and doesn't get resolved, it gets released, typically by betraying the virtue of loving-kindness with an expression of anger. But this is where I tie in the willingness to be wrong. Any negative thought or action toward another being, or even toward the self, is wrong. But I try not to be attached to being wrong. Tsem Tulku said in a delightful teaching** years ago "When you come across a difficult situation, don't run. If you run, go back, apologize, and make up for it. Don't run and be quiet. That is an offering to the Buddha." Reacting negatively toward someone could easily but placed in that statement. I go back, apologize, and make up for it. If it was a time that passed and I will not see that person again, then at least doing something positive with the intention of apology and making up for it will be done. When you (and by you I mean myself) go back to apologize, make certain that it is authentic, that you (again, I mean myself) have let go of the negative attachment, so that your apology and further acts of kindness are untainted.

Now to tie all this back to how inherent Boddhicitta is: I don't feel like I'm doing anything remarkable. I don't seek commendation or reward. I don't even really think, at this point, anything I'm doing is particularly "Buddhist." Or rather, how to put it... doing such things, engaging people with compassion, and selfless loving-kindness, is just an inherent behavior now. It's not done "to be Buddhist." However, I get reminded that doing such things isn't entirely the norm. I'll be talking about doing something, or explaining what I was doing, to someone, particularly my girlfriend, and she sometimes remarks "Must be a Buddhist thing." Even when serving others, I find myself chiming off mantras or prayers of blessings for people to ease their suffering, and even then, I don't feel like I'm going out of my way to do anything. I think that's good. If there's anything I want someone to comment on is that. I feel like a lot of people in the lay world hold a distinction between "my everyday life" and "my Buddhist life" or something like that. I know I used to, and I know a few of the young adult Buddhists I've come across do. But I feel like there should be no distinction. I feel like our natural habits should also be compassionate habits. Buddhism may have taught me the importance of compassion and easing others suffering, but I think the capacity to do so is just natural, not a "Buddhist thing."

I suppose I should offer some nugget of wisdom or closing statement to all this, so I'll address younger new practitioners- if you're saying mantras and meditating, that's great, but I feel at least that if your everyday life isn't reflecting some sort of effort of Bodhicitta, that you're going to have a difficult time progressing. Put active, relative Bodhicitta as an immediate goal above all else.

Thanks for listening!

-Sonam

** Here's the teaching I was referring to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkICMrNG78M Tsem Tulku's teaching style has seem to change a lot since then, but there are some very practical lessons to be learned in this video.



You have spoken well and understood Mahayana Buddhism.

I do acknowledge my mistakes from time to time and do my best to correct them. "My view is right, and yours is wrong." I am currently working to change this attitude. To be honest, I have seen so many mistakes that I have after beginning to practice Buddhism, Pure Land. And still always have many mistakes to be correct.

Good post and I will refer to beginner practitioners on this forum when I encounter them. You have spoken well on the obstacles that face many Western Buddhists and Buddhists.
NAMO AMITABHA
NAM MO A DI DA PHAT (VIETNAMESE)
NAMO AMITUOFO (CHINESE)
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