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Lainaus kirjasta "Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices
Before embarking on any new project, learning a new language for example, it helps to know without doubt why you are doing it and to be sure it is something you feel is worth seeing through to the end. Once that basis has been established, it is only natural to ask, “What should I do first?” It’s a good question, and one that’s quite easy to answer if, for example, you want to learn a new language. Beginners, obviously, start by learning the alphabet. But when it comes to the somewhat more ambitious and far-reaching project of fully accomplishing a spiritual path, things can get a little tricky. Although the same question will have to be asked, it’s a line of inquiry that is far more dangerous for an aspiring Buddhist than it ever could be for a language student. Why? Because in the Buddhist world both the question and its answer have become institutionalized.
Theoretically, as each individual’s spiritual journey will necessarily be different, “What’s first?” could elicit any number of answers. Unfortunately, though, only a fully realised buddha or a higher-stage bodhisattva is capable of giving explicit, individually tailored instructions about what each person should do first, and the likelihood of bumping into such sublime beings as we go about our daily business is extremely slim. So, how should we proceed? What should we do, and when? And is there anything at all that can be ignored?
Without the personal advice of Buddha, our only option is to rely on the existing generalizations provided by the dharma that are themselves the result of centuries of guesswork. Not very encouraging news in some ways, but do not despair. This guesswork may be hundreds of years old, but it was originally developed by some of the greatest scholars and practitioners ever to have walked this earth. So rest assured that if the answer to the question “What do I do if I want to follow the path of dharma?” turns out to be shamatha meditation or the four foundations, you won’t go far wrong.
One of the problems we are faced with today is that ngöndro practise is increasingly perceived as a kind of custom. It’s not a new phenomenon. Customs and traditions have always grown up around spiritual methods. In fact it is difficult to see how they can be avoided, or even if they should be. In places like Burma, Japan and Thailand, the local colour that now adorns the wisdom of the Buddha was instrumental in helping the teachings take root and flourish successfully. But today, almost the moment an aspiring vajrayana student ventures into a teaching, she is told that before doing anything else, she must first complete the ngöndro. Yet, the intention behind all Buddha’s teaching is to transcend man-made customs and culture, which change depending on the times in which we live, our country’s geography and its prevalent attitudes. Had the vinaya been taught somewhere dusty and windy, no doubt Buddha would have suggested that the monks protect their faces with what we now call a “burkha.” If that tradition had then been transplanted to a humid and completely windless tropical forest, it’s unlikely the monks living there would have found it inspiring.
As your studies deepen, you will come to realise that ngöndro is the most distinctive element of the vajrayana. Sadly, though, it is fashionable these days to try to get it out of the way as quickly as possible. New vajrayana students are learning to view ngöndro as a hurdle they are required to overcome before being allowed to receive higher teachings. It is such a big mistake! And a potentially dangerous one, because it is virtually impossible to refute. Yet many hold this view, and the consequences are beginning to mushroom out of control. For example, in Buddhist circles, where a kind of spiritual “political correctness” operates, even the gentlest suggestion that not everyone has to accumulate one hundred thousand prostrations is extremely unwelcome. The more people who think like this, the greater the risk that this precious practise will be reduced to meaningless ritual.
Of course, to follow a step-by-step path can be both beneficial and rewarding, but the problem is that contemporary dharma students tend to follow prescribed practises far too slavishly. Each student’s needs are different, and one of the skills a teacher must develop is the ability to discern the method most appropriate to each person’s capacity.
Imagine, for example, you have been given the task of teaching your next-door neighbour to ride a bicycle. The first thing you discover about her is that she has difficulty concentrating early in the morning, which is exactly when she has to ride her bike to work. As her teacher, you suggest she wake herself up by drinking a cup of coffee before leaving home. It works like magic, and within a couple of days your student is riding to work safely every morning. Before long, her cousin asks her to teach him how to ride, and since the cup of coffee you suggested made such a difference to her own bike-riding experience, she passes it on without considering whether he really needs it or not. He then passes the same information on to his brother, who passes it on to his daughter, and so on and so forth, until, five hundred years later, a closely knit cult has grown up of bicycle riders who only cycle after drinking coffee, and anyone who does not drink coffee will not ride a bike.
How Useful Is Cultural Paraphernalia?
Spiritual paths born in Asia, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, are wrapped in all kinds of cultural paraphernalia and employ rituals that have been customized to meet the needs of each adoptive ethnic group. Asians love all the pomp and ceremony of Buddhadharma (its theatricality continues to benefit practitioners to this day); however, now that Buddhist philosophy is being taught beyond Asian borders, we face a number of challenges. While many ancient Buddhist rituals work very well for Asians, they are less easily digested by Europeans, Americans and Australians. Even young people born into traditional Buddhist societies in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet find it hard to make sense of some of the more ritualistic aspects of dharma.
But just because many time-honored Eastern traditions seem a little old-fashioned in today’s changing world, we should not jump to the conclusion that they are now obsolete. Although some aspects may no longer prove useful, much of Buddhadharma’s so-called religiosity is still extremely worthwhile. As culture is neither independent nor permanent, it is still possible to teach and manipulate the ceremonial side of things, which means that those elements of ancient cultures that are a necessary part of Buddhist practise should, without doubt, be passed on to modern people.
The “anjali mudra” of pressing the palms together as a sign of respect and greeting is a beautiful and widely recognized gesture, and in the context of prostrations an accepted form of practise. Imagine if the practise were updated and you were told to shake hands one hundred thousand times instead. It would hardly have the same effect, although theoretically, there is no logical reason why it wouldn’t. But strong and long-lasting habits almost always overcome logic, and often the old ways really are the best, bearing testimony to the extraordinary insight and vision of the masters of the past who came up with so many universally applicable practises, such as sitting with a straight back during meditation practise, which continues to be appropriate for all human beings no matter what their background.
Certainly, the customs and traditions connected with ngöndro accumulations are still relevant for today’s practitioners. People like me, for example, find a ready-made structure and measurable goal both encouraging and inspiring—the proverbial carrot tied to a donkey’s hat. But we live in degenerate times and it is not easy to identify which of the many skilful methods available will still work for modern people. Logic suggests that, as times are so tough, each element of ngöndro should be repeated not just the customary one hundred thousand times but three hundred thousand times, or even more. Yet there are many who advocate the reduction of repetitions to ten thousand as a way of encouraging those put off by big numbers.
Lama Shang Rinpoche said those who want to practise mahamudra should not make a big deal about first accumulating the ngöndro practises; ngöndro and the so-called main practise must both be practised at all times. The crucial point here is that the aim of ngöndro is not merely the accumulation of numbers, but to penetrate our minds, ruffle the feathers of our pride and make a satisfying dent in our egos.