Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  The two phases of our spiritual practice

When we take the Bodhisattva vows, we do so in the presence of our Spiritual Guide, whether in the form of a Kadampa teacher or with the Guru visualized before us in the context of our meditations.  Either way, we should feel like we are actually in the living presence of our Spiritual Guide and we are making these commitments and promises before him.  We should be careful to avoid the habit of just saying the words, without realizing we are giving our Spiritual Guide our word that we will do our best to work with these vows to put them into practice.

For this reason, I thought it would be beneficial if I spoke a bit about our relationship with our Spiritual Guide and how it evolves over time.  I will do so over the next three posts.

When we first come into the Dharma, our life is usually a mess.  But it doesn’t take long before we feel we have enough Dharma experience that we know that no matter what happens to us in this life, we will be able to deal with it.  It may still be challenging, but we know we will work through it in the end.  Some people may have already reached that point, and some others are fast approaching it.  In my view, reaching this point is potentially the most dangerous point of our spiritual practice.  Let me explain.

First of all, what got us to where we are today?  It was our ‘practice of Dharma.’  What does it mean to practice Dharma ?  It means to use the Dharma as the solution to whatever we consider to be our biggest problem, understanding that our problem is our mind and not the external situation.  We have been doing this very well.

But there are two different ways we can do this:  as a ‘crisis Dharma practitioner’ or as a ‘Kadampa practitioner.’  A ‘crisis’ Dharma practitioner is one who uses the Dharma to overcome whatever crisis they are in.  Their primary concern is getting out of the crisis, and they use whatever Dharma they have to get out.  The danger here is when there is no crisis, there is no motivation to practice and they can get trapped in a low level equilibrium.  During tough times, they use their practice to solve it (which is great); but then during normal times they see no need to practice, and they return to samsara (which is not so great).  I have seen this happen to many people.

A Kadampa practitioner will specifically use the lamrim to overcome their problems.  What makes a Kadampa a Kadampa is they take the lamrim as their main practice.  We view our problem within the context of the lamrim and thereby use the objects of lamrim meditation to change our mind towards our situation.  By doing this, our orientation naturally expands to move beyond being interested in simply happiness in this lifetime, which is all the crisis Dharma practitioner is trying to do.

I have seen the spiritual birth and death of hundreds of Dharma practitioners and the difference between those who get trapped in a low level equilibrium and those who continue on is whether they have a consistent practice of lamrim.  Some people find themselves thinking they are drifting a bit in their practice, others feel like they have already left their Dharma life behind as an old chapter in their life.  We need to investigate why this is happening.  A big reason for this is related to whether our motivation is genuinely concerned with happiness beyond this life or not.  Lamrim is all about changing our motivation beyond this life.  So we need to check.

So what are the two phases of our practice?  Phase 1 is when our main task is getting our life under control where we are able to deal with our life and have a happy life.  In this phase our main problems are gross delusions such as attachment, anger, etc.

Phase 2 starts when we have enough Dharma to have a happy life.  In this phase our main problems are complacency, laziness and pride.  With complacency, we are satisfied with what we have accomplished.  We know we can go the rest of our life and be happy combining our external and internal methods.

With laziness, we lose the joy in our practice.  We see the value of practicing when things are difficult and we appreciate it when it gets us out, but when things are going well we want to enjoy the happiness we have worked so hard for and we let our practice linger on.  We derive our happiness from something other than creating good causes.  We ‘do’ a lot of Dharma stuff, but we don’t ‘actively change/heal our mind’ with the Dharma.  We don’t ‘seek out and destroy’ our delusions on increasingly subtle levels.

Pride comes in many forms.  We become like an adolescent child who knows a bit about the world and is convinced he knows everything and certainly more than his parents.  We become unteachable because we are seeking only confirmation that we are right, and become very defensive when we are told we are wrong or that we have certain delusions or things to work on.  Finally, it can take the form of us thinking only our own happiness matters.  We become attached to our happiness we are enjoying, and when a teacher comes a long and pops our bubble we get really upset at them.  We are only concerned with ourselves and don’t really care about the fact that countless others are still suffering and depending on us.

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