Making progress when access to a center is difficult:  “All things teach me the truth of Dharma”

“All things teach me the truth of Dharma.”

Milarepa once famously said, “I do not need Dharma books, everything teaches me the truth of Dharma.”  This can seem like a contradiction – didn’t we just say Dharma books are the most precious objects in the world, and now we are saying we don’t need them?  How can we understand this?  What are the main causes of developing the Milarepa-like special wisdom where all things teach us the truth of Dharma?  It seems to me, there are two main causes:  (1) learning to “connect the dots” and (2) following one tradition purely without mixing.

Prior to meeting the Dharma, in life we encountered countless different objects and we would respond to them with countless different minds.  How exhausting!  Once we discover the Dharma, we learn how to internally respond to the countless different objects we encounter with the 21 minds of the Lamrim.  Eventually, we can reduce these into the 14 minds presented in How to Understand the Mind, eventually these can be reduced into the three principal aspects of the path, eventually these can be reduced into the union of the two truths according to Sutra, and then finally the union of the two truths according to Tantra.  How can we make this progression?  By realizing the interrelationships between the different minds of Dharma and realizing how by generating the 21 minds directly we realize indirectly all 84,000 instructions, by realizing the 14 directly we realize the 21 indirectly, by realizing the three we realize the 14 and so on.   Vide Kadampa once did a multi-year series on his fabulous blog Daily Lamrim where he explored the interactions between each Lamrim meditation and all the others.  I highly encourage people to read his extraordinary exposition.

It is worth considering why Geshe-la has given us “everything we need and nothing we don’t.”  Besides what was explained earlier, there is a deeper purpose:  he wants us to do the internal work to connect the dots.  When we were in Kindergarten, our teachers would give us “connect the dots” exercises, which both helped us learn the sequence of the numbers and provided us with an art project.  At the beginning, the page just had a bunch of dots with numbers on it, and it wasn’t always clear what the final picture would be.  But as we connected the dots, an image started to take place and when we were delighted to discover it was a Panda!  Then, we started coloring it in, and in the end we had a nice picture of a Panda.  In exactly the same way, each of the core meditations are like the principal dots on the canvass of the Dharma.  In the beginning, they seem like individual dots, but when we start to connect them we are delighted to discover an image of our own enlightenment.  We complete the outline with Sutra, and then add in the color of Tantra until finally in the end we have a nice image of ourselves as a Buddha.

Some people get very nervous about this, fearing that as we connect the dots we are inventing our own lineage.  They are very fearful of anything that is not explicitly enumerated in Geshe-la’s books, and they will dismiss qualified Dharma wisdom with thoughts like, “Geshe-la never said that.”  But Gen Atisha explains, “there is the lineage that arises from listening, and there is the lineage that arises from contemplation.”  The Dharma is not just something we read about, it is something we discover within ourselves.  Geshe-la gets us started with his books, but then we complete the work by contemplating and meditating upon their meaning – not just individually, but collectively.  As we do this, we weave together a net of Dharma within our mind that is able to encounter any object, and it leads our mind inexorably to deeper and deeper realizations of Lamrim, Lojong and Vajrayana Mahamudra.

The second principal cause of developing Milarepa-like wisdom is to follow one tradition purely without mixing.  When my daughter was about two years old, she made a startling discovery.  She would take an orange balloon and put it up to her eyes, then take it down again.  When she first did so, she gasped, “Daddy, everything just turned orange!”  In her mind, all the objects around her suddenly became orange, and then when she would take the balloon down again, they would go back to a myriad of different colors.  Then they would all become orange again.  It didn’t dawn on her that their “orange-ness” depended upon the lens through which she was looking at things, she thought the objects themselves were changing color.  Buddha is telling us we are no different.  We look at the world through the lens of our delusions and see a contaminated world of samsara, filled with causes of happiness and misery.  It doesn’t even dawn on us that the world appears this way because we are looking at it through a deluded lens.  Like my daughter, we think the objects we see actually exist in the way that they appear to us.  If we change the lenses through which we view the world, it will appear entirely differently.

When we follow one tradition purely without mixing we build such lenses within our mind.  I have a friend who is a very successful businessman.  Because his mind is so familiar with business, everywhere he goes, “everything teaches him some lesson of business.”  In exactly the same way, as our mind becomes more and more familiar with looking at the world in a particular way – the Kadampa way, for example – then we too will reach the point where everything we see teaches us the truth of the Kadam Dharma.  There is nothing unique about the Dharma in this regard, the same would be true for a Christian where everything teaches them the truth of the Gospel, or to a physicist where everything teaches them the truth of physics.  Business, the Dharma, the Gospel and Physics are more than just a grab bag of good ideas, rather each, in their own way, is a system of thought that has the power to understand anything from a given perspective.  Someone with a business mind, for example, could look at the Dharma, the Gospel and Physics and learn lessons of business.  Likewise, somebody with a Dharma mind could look at business, the Gospel and Physics and learn lessons of Dharma.  Paradoxically, the more clearly we look at the world through a single lens, the more we can view any object without fear of confusion.  But if we have no single lens through which we view the world then we can only learn Dharma when we look at Dharma, business when we look at business, the Gospel when we look at the Gospel and Physics when we look at Physics.

Of course it is entirely our choice which lens we use to understand the world.  But if we wish to be like Milarepa and have all things teach us the truth of Dharma, we would be wise to train ourselves in following one path purely without mixing.


4 thoughts on “Making progress when access to a center is difficult:  “All things teach me the truth of Dharma”

  1. If the basic spiritual principles are assimilated, there could be mixed practice anymore? All manifestations (even the variety of religious symbols) are seen through the lens of these true functional principles. What is your opinion about this?

    • I think we need to make a distinction between “mixing practices” and “appreciating other traditions.” Mixing practices is when we pick and choose from a variety of different traditions the teachings we like as if it were some giant spiritual buffet. This doesn’t work because each spiritual tradition is in fact a fully integrated system, where each instruction supports and mutually supports one another. If we were a computer programmer, we wouldn’t take half a program programmed in one language and then combine it with half a program programmed in another language and expect it to work. Instead, we should follow one tradition purely without mixing it so that it becomes our “point of view” for looking at all other things. Once we have this point of view, then we can draw inspiration from everything because everything we look at will reveal to us some truth of our particular spiritual point of view. For example, I can listen to a good Beatles song and it will trigger within me a wide variety of deeper understandings of the Kadampa teachings. Similarly, I can learn of the example of Christ or rejoice in the faith of Christians and it will help reinforce my Kadampa path because I see the truth of the Kadampa reflected in what I am observing. In this way, by having one spiritual point of view we can learn from everything. If we have every spiritual point of view in some hodge podge of our own creation, we in fact have no spiritual point of view and can learn from nothing.

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