The Purpose of Dharma Practice

H.H. the IVth Dalai Lama

H.H. the IVth Dalai Lama

What is the purpose of the Dharma? Just like other spiritual traditions, Buddhadharma is an instrument for training the mind–something we use to try to work out the problems that we all experience; problems that originate mainly at the mental level. Negative emotional forces create mental unrest, such as unhappiness, fear, doubt, frustration and so forth; these negative mental states then cause us to engage in negative activities, which in turn bring us more problems and more suffering. Practicing Dharma is a way of working out these problems, be they long-term or immediate. In other words, Dharma protects us from unwanted suffering.

Buddhadharma means bringing discipline and inner tranquility into our mind. Therefore, when we talk about transforming our mind and developing inner qualities, the only way we can do this is to utilize the mind itself. There is nothing else we can use to bring about such change. Thus, we should realize that much of what we do not desire–unwanted events, unhappiness and suffering–actually comes about as a result of our mistaken way of viewing the world and our destructive thoughts and emotions. These negative minds create both immediate unhappiness and future suffering as well.

Underlying all of this is a fundamental ignorance, a fundamentally flawed way of perceiving reality. In Buddhism, this is called “self-grasping,” or “grasping at self-existence.” Since this is the case, the way to eliminate negative aspects of mind and the suffering they create is to see through the delusion of these mental processes and cultivate their opponent–the wisdom that is correct insight into the ultimate nature of reality. Through cultivating this insight and applying it as an antidote, we will be able to dispel the suffering and undesirable events in our lives.

[From Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment by H.H. the IVth Dalai Lama]

Hidden Yogis

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche (1932-1999)

“Even in this world, and even now, there are said to be many hidden yogis or discreet yogis, called bepay naljor in Tibetan. It means those realized ones who are not generally recognized as great spiritual sages or saints, but have deeply tasted the fruit of enlightenment, and are living it. Perhaps they are anonymously doing their good works here among us right now!

“The infinite vast expanse is one’s own inconceivable nature. Who can say who has realized it and who hasn’t? When we travel around the world or experience other dimensions, there are so many beings who have tasted it. We can see it in their behavior, in their countenance, and in stories that are told–not just in the Dzogchen tradition or the Buddhist tradition, but in any tradition, and in our Western world too.

“This true nature is so vast and inconceivable that even some birds and animals and beings in other unseen dimensions can be said to have realized it, as in some of the ancient Indian Jataka stories and other teaching tales. It is always said that everything is the self-radiant display of the primordial Buddha Samantabhadra. There are infinite numbers of Buddhas and infinite numbers of beings. Who can say who is excluded from it?”

[Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, from Natural Great Perfection: Dzogchen Teachings and Vajra Songs]

Seeing the Buddha, Seeing the Dhamma

Buddha Eyes

“Then the Blessed One dressed and, taking bowl and robe, approached the Venerable Vakkali. The Venerable Vakkali saw the Blessed One coming in the distance and stirred on his bed. The Blessed One said to him: “Enough, Vakkali, do not stir on your bed. There are these seats ready, I will sit down there.”

“The Blessed One then sat down on the appointed seat and said to the Venerable Vakkali: “I hope you are bearing up, Vakkali, I hope you are getting better. I hope that your painful feelings are subsiding and not increasing, and that their subsiding, not their increase, is to be discerned.”

“Venerable sir, I am not bearing up, I am not getting better. Strong painful feelings are increasing in me, not subsiding, and their increase, not their subsiding, is to be discerned.”

“I hope then, Vakkali, that you are not troubled by remorse and regret.”

“Indeed, venerable sir, I have quite a lot of remorse and regret.”

“I hope, Vakkali, that you have nothing for which to reproach yourself in regard to virtue.”

“I have nothing, venerable sir, for which to reproach myself in regard to virtue.”

“Then, Vakkali, if you have nothing for which to reproach yourself in regard to virtue, why are you troubled by remorse and regret?”

“For a long time, venerable sir, I have wanted to come to see the Blessed One, but I haven’t been fit enough to do so.”

“Enough, Vakkali! Why do you want to see this foul body? One who sees the Dhamma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dhamma. For in seeing the Dhamma, Vakkali, one sees me; and in seeing me, one sees the Dhamma.”

[From the Samyutta Nikaya 22.87]

The Rimé Movement

Jamgön Kongtrül

Jamgön Kongtrül (1813-1899)

The Rimé movement arose in the late 19th century. While many have considered the Rimé approach to be that of a homogenizing eclecticism, minimizing differences, and trying to blend the unique characteristics of the various lineages into one, this is a misconception. Great luminaries of the Rimé movement would often cite the primary lineage they were initiated into, though they also studied other lineages in depth as well. I think this is an important distinction. Rather than dismissing the differences between the teachings and methods of the various lineages and schools as inconsequential, and trying to promote an ‘everything is really the same’ approach, the Rimé movement emphasized the uniqueness of the various lineages, while simultaneously making the teachings available to others who might not have been exposed to them due to sectarianism. See more here.

[Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé was one of the founders of the Rimé movement]


“Bodhicitta satisfies with all the varieties of happiness
And cuts free from all suffering
Those who are deprived of happiness
And those endowed with many sorrows.”

[Shantideva, from the Bodhisattva-caryavatara]



What is this strange word, bodhicitta? Where does it come from and what does it mean? Etymologically speaking, we can break it down like this: It is a Sanskrit term that combines the word for “awakened” (bodhi) and the word for “mind” (citta). Taken together, this reads as Awakened-Mind. It is sometimes also translated as the Mind of Enlightenment. This is helpful for us to begin to apprehend what bodhicitta is about, and yet, this is only a beginning, an initial step in the right direction, an intimation towards a reality that is beyond all words, beyond all dictionary definitions, and beyond all abstract thought processes.

The seed of bodhicitta is compassion, which is the wish for all beings to be free of suffering and its causes. Yes, all beings, not just those who are close to you, or those who treat you like you want them to; not just those who reciprocate your kind feelings, or say nice words to you, but all beings (even that punk who cut you off on the road the other day, even that lover that left you sad and lonely, even that father/mother/sister/brother that doesn’t talk to you anymore, even that co-worker or associate that just grates on your nerves, even that…well, you get the point).

Bodhicitta is an orientation, a direction, a motivation that infuses and informs our body (what we do), speech (what we say) and mind (what we think/feel). When we have firmly established bodhicitta, everything we do, everything we say, everything we think and feel will be dedicated to the liberation and enlightenment of all beings. At that point bodhicitta becomes second-nature, it arises spontaneously and effortlessly in all aspects of our lives. Yet we have to begin where we are. For most of us (including myself), we have not yet fully established this level of bodhicitta. But I’ll let you in on a little secret, that is OK. We can get there. It takes time, but we can get there. Keep working on it.

We start out by cultivating compassion. As mentioned above, compassion can be thought of as the wish for all beings to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. One method of cultivating this is through meditation. You can sit quietly, calm your mind and then begin to generate compassion. You can think of those you love to get you started. Think of someone close to you, someone you really care about. Feel the compassion arise in your heart and mind. In time, you can begin to add people who you have an aversion towards, someone who makes you angry, or someone who has hurt you. Begin to generate compassion for them as well. Then you can also add people who you are indifferent towards—people you don’t feel one way or the other about. Generate compassion for them as well. Once you have stabilized compassion in your mindstream then you can begin to cultivate bodhicitta. Whereas compassion is the wish for all beings to be free from suffering, bodhicitta is dedicating all of your energies towards attaining enlightenment so that you can aid all other beings towards liberation and enlightenment as well.

There are two main levels of bodhicitta. The first level of bodhicitta is called Aspiring Bodhicitta. This is where you want to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, but yet, you still are not quite ready to engage in all of the practices to get there. Yet this is still a valuable step. Informed by the compassion you have generated, you sincerely want to do it. You are moving in that direction. The second level of bodhicitta is called Engaged Bodhicitta. This is where you not only want to do it, but you actively engage in the Dharma practices that will carry you all the way to enlightenment, for only a Buddha, an Awakened One, can really help all beings to become Awakened as well. And to get to this state, to attain Buddhahood, we are guided by bodhicitta.

Essence of the Tathagatas

Jestsun Taranatha

Jestsun Taranatha

“So, from primordial time, all that is ultimately consumed within the exalted dimensions, types of pristine awareness, qualities, and enlightened activities abides within the essence of the tathgatas. When someone becomes a Buddha, these are not then newly acquired but are merely separated from the defilements that have eclipsed them.”

[From “The Essence of Zhentong” by Jetsun Taranatha]

In other words, according to this teaching the innate quality of your mind is ultimate clarity, or Awakeness. However, for most of us this Awakeness is obstructed by habitual patterns, conditioning, and various forms of obscuration. This situation has been likened to a mirror covered in dust and grime. The mirror is there beneath the dust. Wipe the dust away, and the mirror will shine forth.

According to this teaching, buddha-nature is not something you presently lack, and can later acquire. Buddha-nature is something you already have, it is the very essence of your mind. The difference between ordinary beings and fully enlightened buddhas is that the latter have removed the obstructions that prevent this Awakeness from shining forth. This is a task of Dharma practice, to remove the obstructions and obscurations. There are innumerable methods available for doing this, applicable to beings of different capacities and dispositions.


Reciting Mantras from Books



[Clarification – the following comes from the Vimalaprabha, which is a commentary on Kalachakra-tantra written by Pundarika, the second Kalki. The context of this quote is in reference to practices within the Anuttarayoga Tantra class (see this post, which includes a listing of the different classes of tantra within the Indo-Tibetan tradition). Elsewhere, in a discussion about this quote, a friend brought up the fact that there are mantras which are commonly known and used that do not require empowerment or teachings. For example, the mantra of Chenrezig. I agree, and realized my post could be taken the wrong way. Hence, this note. That said, I stand behind the idea that tantric practice requires empowerment from a qualified Dorje Lopon (Vajra Acharya), and without such, can lead to further entanglement in samsara, confusion, and other afflictive states. This is due in part to the many misconceptions that are held regarding tantric practice and teachings. I am also reminded of the analogy given of tantra, that it is like a snake in a bamboo tube. There are only two ways to go–up or down. I am ever grateful for my kind teachers who guide me on the path.]


“People who practice the sadhana with mantras read from a book and who are excluded from traditional teachings become mentally afflicted.

“What if the traditional teaching is received from a book? Then it is disclosed by the text of the composition, which has a provisional meaning.

“Those who practice the sadhana of gods and goddesses, with mantras that are read from a book, miss the true meaning of mantra and aim to eat space.

“For the adepts with the vigor of a steadfast mind or who pray with recitation of mantras, a desired mundane siddhi may arise.

“Those devoid of practice do not succeed by means of the recitation of mantras, fire offerings, and the means of worshiping shrines. These words are in accordance with the fact.

“Therefore, for the sake of the sadhana of the teachers, bodhisattvas, and gods, the wise receive this very essence of mantra with every caution.”

[From the Vimalaprabha (Stainless Light) commentary. Translated by Vesna Wallace]

A Buddhist MOOC


A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. Since around 2012 they have begun to flourish on the Internet. There are several platforms (e.g. Coursera, edX, Udacity, and others). The general concept is to offer distance learning, typically free of charge,  to a massive international student body. MOOCs often include video lectures, written assignments, quizzes, a discussion forum where students can interact and engage further with the material, and a final exam. On most platforms, and for most courses, if you complete the assignments and pass the exam you can earn a statement of completion indicating that you have successfully fulfilled the requirements for the course. Subjects have tended to focus on STEM fields (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics), however, more and more other fields of study have been included (e.g. the Humanities).

I have completed several technology based MOOCs, and really enjoyed the experience. I began to wonder if there were any Buddhist specific MOOCs out there, so I did a search. Lo and behold, I found this:

Buddhist Meditation and the Modern World

Though my practice is much more traditional (i.e. I am not all that interested in “secular Buddhism”) this looks promising in terms of an online course. It will be interesting to see how it turns out, and to participate with other students. Buddhist Meditation and the Modern World begins January 19th 2015, and runs for 13 weeks. Enrollment is open now. This is a free class on the Coursera platform, offered by the University of Virginia.

Maybe I’ll see some of you there?