Thursday, 8 December 2016

Buddha’s Path in Practice: An end in itself or a means to a better world? (Khenpo Sodargye)

Below are some notes on a very compelling dhamma talk by the Tibetan monk Khenpo Sodargye at the Lady Mitchell Hall in Cambridge. A full video of the talk can be watched here. The audio may be heard here. The organisers thank all those who helped contribute to the event, to all who attended, and to Rachael Harris (left) presiding and to Catherine Hardie (right) for interpreting so brilliantly into English.

Buddha’s Path in Practice:
An end in itself or a means to a better world?
(Khenpo Sodargye)

Listening to each other…
Looking back at the twentieth century and the many conflicts throughout the world, we look forward and hope things will be different in the twenty-first century and that we take advantage of the opportunities for cooperation and collaboration to make a better world. While scientific advances of the West have certainly led to huge material improvements in the standard of living, the wisdom traditions of the East such as Buddha-dhamma have a lot to teach us. So there is a lot of scope for mutual exchange.
I am going to talk about whether the practice of Buddha’s teaching is a practice for personal advancement or a benefit to the wider world. I have been engaged in the practice and study of Buddha’s dhamma for a long time. This dhamma is extremely vast. It is difficult to encapsulate its essence. Of course, it is said by some that the purpose of this teaching is to attain liberation, remove mental afflictions and enter nirvana. According to others, however, even after attaining enlightenment, one should dedicate oneself to the advancement of other beings. According to Patrul Rinpoche, a renowned master of the Tibetan tradition in the 19th century, the objective is not to become enlightened as an end in itself but as a means to liberate other sentient beings.  As the Buddhist Chaplain at Cambridge said when I met her, the Buddha’s teaching is a powerful medicine of great value in the current age to those who are committed to understanding and practicing the teachings.

Compassion for the world
On the one hand, the current age brings unprecedented material blessings, but also unprecedented suffering. All kinds of events transpire around the world each day that we see in the news: war, pollution, food safety to name but a few. To take one example, three hundred thousand people have died in Syria in the last five years and a million people are displaced either within Syria’s borders or outside Syria, and we are seeing the effects of this in Europe and the different attitudes of people in this country to these refugees which I’m sure you are aware of. I would urge you think about the plight of these people who have lost their homes. Of course, I’m not making any requests of you, but asking for compassionate mind. Even if we do not have the means to do something, we should think about this. There are some who say that ordained monks should not think about this, that they should seclude themselves in a cave and examine the nature of mind. But in my opinion, as an ordained person, caring about sentient beings in the environment around us is very important.

Compassion for sufferers of depression
Challenges are not restricted to conflicts. Think also of depression. Over the next twenty years, this is expected to be the second highest cause of illness after heart disease. I’d like to say a few things tonight about depression and how the Buddha’s teaching can help with this. The reason I would like to talk about depression is because in the UK, 26% of the population are depressed, that is 16 million people, one in four! In China, there are 90 million sufferers — which is the population of the UK, Austria and Holland combined. Depression has existed in the past, but it is a growing problem in the modern age. Many famous names in history, many artists and writers suffered depression. Freud described it as a loss of interest in the outside world. It is not feeling down because of some reason that we are naturally upset about, but something more serious, a feeling that hope is extinguished and a loss in confidence.

Medication or Meditation?
Depression is a subject I have paid a lot of attention to and studied a lot. The word did not even exist in Tibetan in the past. It is a new word, invented in recent times. So it seems depression was not common in Tibet. In terms of treating this disease, there are various approaches, including psychological and medical. While medicine might stop the symptoms, once the medicines stop, the symptoms return. Also, there are side-effects to medication. So I believe that to cure this illness of the mind, we need a cure of the mind. I have myself witnessed the great usefulness of Buddhist practices in countless instances, too many to name: the use of meditation, emptiness meditation, mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation and altruistic practices.

1. Mindfulness Meditation

In recent times, there has been an enthusiasm in the West for mindfulness practices, but they existed already in Buddhist tradition. One metaphor of mindfulness is of the mind like the reins that bring a stampeding elephant under control, after which positive mental states arise more readily. It teaches us to focus single-pointedly, and focusing on everything which arises in our life in this way is a very powerful practice. So mindful meditation is one very useful practice.

2. Contemplative Mindfulness
Another way of practicing this is as a contemplative meditation on the body, emotions, the mind, and phenomena. Focusing on the physical form, we realize its impermanent nature. We reduce our grasping towards it. Meditating on emotions, we realize their changing nature, and loosen our grasp on emotional states. Contemplating mindfulness and examination of our minds, we focus on the current moment and so understand the nature of our mind and do not cling to its persistence. Finally, contemplating phenomena, we recognize the empty and selfless nature of phenomena. There is no conflict between emptiness and achieving things, striving towards goals with effort. (Regarding the nature of phenomena to be inherently empty is something we have to have an understanding of, just as physicists describe matter to be made up of atoms in a state of flux. It is a common misunderstanding of emptiness to think of it as nihilistic and meaning we can’t have goals.)
Of course these four approaches to mindfulness are in the Southern Theravada tradition as well, the four foundations of mindfulness. By engaging in this meditation practice, it does heal mental affliction. And even if we do not suffer depression, practicing them is a good preventative measure to prevent future illness.

3. Selflessness
Another Buddhist practice which can be helpful is realizing selflessness: selflessness of being and selflessness of phenomena. A lot of depression is caused by strong grasping of self. The investigation of the two forms of selflessness is very important in this context.

4. Mantra Meditation
As well as single-pointedness, mindfulness and selflessness, another practice I would like to share is mantra meditation. I have a lot of personal success with this both in my own life and with others. Although I am not a doctor, I have helped many people with this method. This tantric mantra was given to me in 1986. I think it had an extraordinary effect in helping me become unshakeable in my faith in the dhamma. In the beginning I would not have described myself as someone who was unmoveable in my practice. This mantra has ten syllables. It is not something I have taught in front of an audience before. But it is not something that needs faith. I believe it is like a medicine that the doctor prescribes. There is no need to understand it. It just works. If you have the need, write it down to share. Recite it 10 times, 10000 times. In terms of whatever endeavours we engage in, to overcome obstacles it really is a mantra of great potency. I would like to share it with you.
Om Sancha Maha Ruo Ka Na Hum Pat
Om Sancha Maha Ruo Ka Na Hum Pat
Om Sancha Maha Ruo Ka Na Hum Pat

5. Equanimity of a Mind at Ease
There is a saying in Tibetan: after you go up a mountain, you have to come down. Happiness and sadness follow each other. It is good to maintain a mind at ease.

6. Dhamma Study
Research into Buddha’s teaching is really invaluable and indispensable. The ideas of selflessness and of dependent origination are of absolute importance to our everyday lives! Engaging with these teachings, it is advisable to raise objections. Debate and rational investigation are the crux of our methodology in the Tibetan tradition.

7. Parents, Family & Community
The last thing is to benefit others and to look after one’s parents. As Durkheim observed in his empirical studies, depression often has its roots not at the individual level but in the community, or common mind. So it is important to work at the higher level of the community also. Thank you!

Questioning Dogma
Question from the audience:
“I recited this mantra 1000 times a day and got into Cambridge and I think this is why I got in!”

Another audience member: 
“Oh, I want to recite this mantra!”

Khenpo Sodargye:
“In fact there are many people who got into Cambridge who didn’t recite this mantra!”

No comments:

Post a Comment