Since you cannot become a Buddha merely by understanding Dharma, practise earnestly with understanding.
It is said that Dharma instructions are like a diamond, like the sun and like a medicinal tree. The meaning is that just as every little shard of a diamond, ray of sunshine or leaf of a medicinal tree is valuable, so too every tiny understanding of Dharma understanding has great value. There are many levels of understanding for every instruction, and each one functions to free our mind to a certain extent. Gaining an intellectual understanding is a good thing. Many people, understanding that personal experience is better, mistakenly conclude that an intellectual understanding is not good. They then criticize when discussions of emptiness or other technical topics take place or they judge themselves as being somehow superior because they are “a practitioner.” All of this is wrong. Our intellectual understanding develops in relation to our practical experience of the instructions, with each reinforcing and informing the other. But with that being said, we should never be satisfied with an intellectual understanding alone. The real meaning of Dharma is only understood when we actually change ourselves with it.
Venerable Tharchin explains there are basically three levels at which we mix our mind with the Dharma. First, through our listening to and reading of Dharma instructions we can gain a primarily intellectual understanding of the wisdom and good qualities of others. Second, when we contemplate the Dharma and test its validity, we transform what was the wisdom and understanding of others into our own wisdom and understanding. Finally, third, when we engage in formal meditation or actually put the instructions into practice we make the Dharma an “acquisition of our personality.” In short, we become what we mix our mind with. For example, by reading instructions on compassion I can get an understanding of what it is and how to develop it, but it is not mine – I am understanding how others’ minds work. By contemplating it, I develop my own compassion. By putting it into practice, I become a compassionate person – it becomes part of my personality. To practice earnestly with understanding means to make this progression from intellectual understanding to personality acquisition. First we understand what we need to do, then we do it, then we become it.
Avoid places that disturb your mind, and always remain where your virtues increase.
Until you attain stable realizations, worldly amusements are harmful, therefore abide in a place where there are no such distractions.
Avoid friends who cause you to increase delusions, and rely upon those who increase your virtue. This you should take to heart.
This is very practical advice. Of course in theory, a Bodhisattva can transform any situation into the path and so has no need to avoid certain places or remain in other places. But we are not yet bodhisattvas. We are still heavily influenced by our surroundings, so we need to pay attention. There are some parts of our life where we can remember that everything is a dream, but there are other parts where it is more difficult, where we are easily swept away by our ignorance, attachment and aversion.
There are three main pieces of advice in this respect. With respect to remaining in places that draw out your virtuous qualities, the point is going to bars will not bring out the best qualities of an alcoholic. This is why our Dharma centers are so important. When we spend time with the people there, we become socialized into their way of thinking and they encourage us to engage in virtue. Where else in this world can we find that? The meaning of the advice to avoid worldly distractions is if we are easily swept away by worldly activities and we wind up forgetting our practice, then we need to be aware of such situations and avoid them. We need to cultivate relationships with friends who draw out the best in us. We are easily socialized by those around us, so we should remain with people who draw out our virtues. A good analogy is with children. The goal is to be able to have our children be fully functional in the world, but while they are growing in maturity we need to keep them protected from certain influences until they are ready to deal with them correctly. After we have stabilized these things, then we can safely ‘go out into the world’ without losing our practice. But as long as we are still vulnerable, it is wise to keep yourself somewhat sheltered.
Since there is never a time when worldly activities come to an end, limit your activities.
It is important to understand what Atisha means by “worldly activities.” No activity is worldly from its own side. It only becomes worldly if we engage in it with a worldly mind. Spending time with our families, working, shopping, etc., are not by nature worldly activities. We just have bad mental habits of engaging in these activities with a worldly mind. A worldly mind is one that is primarily concerned with the happiness and welfare of this life alone. A spiritual or pure mind is one that is primarily concerned with the happiness and welfare of all of our future lives. We can engage in exactly the same activity with a worldly mind or a spiritual mind depending on how we relate to it. So the advice here is not to abandon our normal activities, rather it is to abandon engaging in them with a worldly mind.
But with that being said, it is likewise important to make the time to engage in our formal Dharma practice. If we do not make time to engage in our practice, we will never have time to do so. If we do not take the time to wake up from this dream, we will never wake up from it. Just as we find time every day to clean and feed our body, so too we must find time every day to clean and feed our mind with virtue. Just as we take the time to exercise our body and keep it healthy, so too we need to find the time to exercise our mind and keep it healthy.