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Advice on Practice

A compilation of advice about Dharma studies and practice
Advice from Khen Rinpoche Geshe Thubten Chonyi, resident teacher at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore. These teachings offer valuable advice related to our Dharma studies and practice: how to check whether our practices are Dharma, the need for study and constant reflection on the Buddha's teachings, and how to overcome our afflictions and problems so that we can truly benefit others. Transcribed, edited and prepared for publication by the editorial team at ABC, Singapore.

Daily Reflections is available as an ebook from online vendors.

CHAPTERS
Daily Reflections
i. Introduction and Biography
1. What is Dharma?
2. Studying the Dharma
3. Need for Reflection and Analysis
4. Overcoming Negative Emotions
5. Practising Pure Perception
6. Faith
7. Advice on Practice
8. Precious Human Rebirth
9. Death and Impermanence
10. Overcoming Attachment to the Body
11. Joyous Effort
12. Subduing Anger
13. Generating Bodhicitta
14. Wisdom Realizing Emptiness

The purpose of Dharma practice 

The purpose of engaging in Dharma practice is to remove suffering and to improve our minds. When our Dharma practice leads to suffering, then I do not see the point in doing it. Dharma practice is essentially performed with our minds and should be done willingly from one’s own side and should contribute to the removal of suffering.

When one understands the purpose, one would not feel forced to practise. Instead, the practice will be done with great enthusiasm.

Creating obstacles for ourselves 

We should not be lazy when it comes to our Dharma practice or studies. Sometimes we think, “I am getting old, I am not intelligent enough to understand this, I do not have enough time” and so forth and we put ourselves down. Thinking in this way, we are hindering ourselves from taking advantage of the opportunity for Dharma studies and practice. Because of this way of thinking, we do not study and practise and become lazy.

We should not stop ourselves from our fair share of Dharma practice and studying. All of us are different. Some are predisposed towards anger, others towards mental distractions. The angry ones may think, “I am the angry type. There is no hope for me. It is impossible for me to meditate on compassion. Forget about it.” Thinking in this way, they do not give themselves the opportunity to improve. Others may think, “My mind is so distracted. There is no way I can meditate and develop concentration.” Again, thinking like this, they stop themselves from being able to change.

The point here is not to create obstacles for our own Dharma practice. Instead, we should open the door to our Dharma practice and studies. We have already discussed the human life of leisure and opportunity. We should reflect on this. All the good conditions are gathered together to enable us to study and practise and we also have the ability to do so. Remembering this, we should encourage and persuade ourselves to study and practise Dharma.

Time management

It is your responsibility to manage your time and to adjust your lifestyle in such a way that Dharma practice and studies can fit into your life in a comfortable and nice way without your feeling stressed. It is pointless to force and push yourself too hard. Then you become depressed and end up feeling that your Dharma practice and studies are making you suffer even more. It is pointless if you end up like that.

One has to expect some difficulties when it comes to practising and studying the Buddhadharma. Everything is difficult. The moment you move your body to start doing anything, the difficulties begin.

Ours is a materially advanced and progressive society.  But there are also many instances of mental frustration, stress, anxiety and mental suffering. These sufferings already exist. So we should not create more suffering with our Dharma practice and studies. That is never the point. The point here is to do things at a comfortable pace.

Our motivation 

Whether the outcome of a course of action is positive or negative depends on the originating intention or motivation. A virtuous intention produces positive results and a negative intention produces bad results. Therefore, we should always rely on mindfulness and vigilance to keep our minds in a virtuous state. We assert that attending teachings is a virtuous act. However, if the motivation for listening to the teachings is not virtuous, then being present and listening to the teachings is not necessarily virtuous.

A beneficial motivation would be to think, “Whatever knowledge I get in class, I am going to blend it with my mind and try to practise it as much as possible.” When we make the effort to practise, we can have positive experiences that will give us the understanding and confidence that the Dharma we are studying and practising really works. What is the result of such positive experiences? Faith in the Dharma will naturally arise and faith in our virtuous friend and guru will be generated from the depths of our hearts.

The problem is that people attend but do not apply the teachings in their daily lives. When the teachings we hear remain simply at an intellectual level for us, without our practising them, it is very difficult for us to generate faith in the Dharma. We do not taste the Dharma. Without such faith, it becomes very difficult to talk about generating faith in our guru who gives us the teachings. But when we blend the teachings with our minds and try to practise them, then over time, the quality of our minds will improve; we become more good-hearted and so forth. Our faith in the Dharma and our guru also increase.

Therefore, it is important that before engaging in any action, we should ask ourselves, “Am I motivated by a positive or negative state of mind?”

The practice of offerings 

When making unsurpassable offerings, we should think, “Just as the great bodhisattva Samantabhadra emanated countless replicas of himself, making offerings filling the entire space, to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas, I shall make offerings in the same way.”

Samantabhadra is not only a bodhisattva but an arya bodhisattva abiding in the grounds. Bodhisattvas like Samantabhadra made such extensive offerings in order to complete the accumulation of merit. Relying on the factor of wisdom is not enough to enable them to achieve the final goal of enlightenment, because they still have the obstructions to omniscience, and removing these obstructions require vast stores of merit.

If such a bodhisattva makes such extensive offerings to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas, it goes without saying that we ordinary beings, who are bound by our afflictions, must do likewise.

We need to make extensive offerings “in order to seize that precious mind” of bodhicitta. It is very difficult to generate bodhicitta especially when our minds are not purified of their obscurations and negativities. We need to accumulate the collection of merit so that the favourable conditions for generating bodhicitta can arise.

Prostrations

Prostrating with our speech means we offer praises to the buddhas with a melodious voice. Prostrating with our minds means reflecting on the qualities of the Buddha and generating faith towards him.  Prostrating with our bodies involves touching the five points of one’s body to the ground or performing the full length prostration.

Our prostrations should always be preceded by reciting the prostration mantra, Om Namo Manjushriye Namo Sushriye Namo Uttama Shriye Soha. There are inconceivable benefits to doing this. By reciting this mantra, every prostration performed is equivalent to one thousand prostrations and the benefit is comparable to hearing and reflecting on the meanings of the three scriptural collections. It is said that when we prostrate continuously after reciting this mantra, we can achieve the path of seeing in this very life itself.

Whether we benefit from our prostrations depends on how well we perform them, our ability to sustain our visualisation and keep our minds focussed on what we need to do with our bodies, speech and mind throughout the prostration. The quality of the prostration is most important, the quantity less so.

There is much to contemplate as we perform each stage of the prostration, placing our palms on our crowns, throats and hearts. We are also advised to visualise countless replicas of ourselves when prostrating. The main thing is to generate faith in the Three Jewels. We will reap the benefits if we reflect properly during the prostration.

Usually, our bodies are prostrating but our minds are distracted. Although we can still accumulate merit from performing such physical prostrations, obviously the merit we accumulate is far greater when our speech and minds are also engaged in the practice.

We are performing prostrations everyday and even if we cannot do many of them at the moment, we can, at least, make a commitment to make three prostrations in the morning and at night as a daily minimum. In this way, we accumulate six prostrations every day.

We should not feel this is a burdensome chore but, instead, we should contemplate and understand the benefits and prostrate voluntarily from our own side to the Three Jewels. Even with six prostrations a day, multiplied by whatever number of days we have left in this life, by the end of this life, we will have accumulated thousands of prostrations.

Advice from Gungtang Rinpoche: Reliance on the merit field 

Gungtang Rinpoche said: “In these degenerate times, when sentient beings have very little merit and our minds are so weak and degenerate, it is very important to make strong requests to our personal deities for blessings. We should work very hard at accumulating merit and purifying our minds of obscurations. It is important to make offerings, prostrations and engage in the practices of the seven limbs.”

Generally speaking, our motivation determines whether our actions are virtuous or not. When our motivation is virtuous, then our actions are also virtuous. But all actions performed in relation to the merit field or to the holy objects are exceptions to this rule. Even when we make offerings or prostrations to the merit field or holy objects with an incorrect motivation, we still accumulate a great deal of merit. This is due to the power of the merit field and the holy objects.

You should therefore grasp the opportunity to rely on holy objects and the merit field to accumulate merit and purify your karma, especially those of you who really want to study the Buddha’s teachings and complete your studies.

It is very difficult to complete your studies, no matter how hard you study, if you do not strive to do this.  This is my own experience from my life in the monastery. There is no guarantee that those who are naturally more intelligent or who do well in their studies can complete them. Generally, those who work at accumulating merit, purifying their negative karma, and making whole-hearted requests to their gurus and special deities are the ones who make it in the end and successfully complete their studies. Those who are more intelligent tend to take things easy and do not work as hard, whereas those who are not so intelligent realise that they have to work harder.

Supplication to the guru-deity 

When we look at the example set by Lama Tsongkhapa in his life story, we see how extremely important it is to make requests continuously to one’s deity and  to strive in accumulating merits and purifying obscurations in order to have some success in our practice, especially if we aspire to realise emptiness. Therefore, when we recite the Heart Sutra, the guru yoga of Lama Tsongkhapa, the prayer, Dependent Arising - A Praise of the Buddha and so on, we should recite them with the motivation of creating the causes for us to complete our studies and to accumulate merit.

When we make requests to our personal deity, we should do so by seeing the deity as inseparable from our root guru. This supplication should be made with single-pointed devotion as shown in the Guru Puja:

You are my guru, you are my yidam,
You are the dakinis and Dharma protectors.
From now until enlightenment I shall seek no other refuge than you,
In this life, the bardo and all future lives,
Hold me with your hook of compassion;
Free me from samsara and nirvana’s fears,
Grant all attainments,
Be my constant friend and guard me from interferences.
(Verse 53)

We see here that the supplication to the guru-deity is not only to be cared for in this life but also in the intermediate state and all future lives to come.

In the monasteries we recite many prayers, sometimes doing so for one to two hours. The purpose of doing so many prayers is to accumulate merit for success in our debating and studies. Sometimes, we even recite the Praises to Twenty-one Taras 70 to 80 times. By comparison, therefore, what we recite in class is nothing as the duration is very short. I thought it is good to give you some perspective. There are some students who may wonder why we are reciting so many prayers and they may feel bored. There are others who think reciting mantras is more beneficial than reciting prayers. Reciting prayers is definitely beneficial. There are only two possibilities: Recite mantras or prayers or do both. When you hold the position that one does not benefit, then you have to say that the other is also useless. This is my own view on this matter. I think that reciting mantras or reciting prayers brings the same benefit.

Focussing on three things 

When we study the Great Treatises in our quest to understand and realise dependent origination, we have to focus on three things:

  1. Making whole-hearted requests to our  guru-deity
  2. Continuously studying and analysing the treatises and
  3. Accumulating merit and purifying obscurations

Some intelligent students may think, “I have sharp faculties. I will be able to study these Great Treatises without accumulating merit.” Such students, who focus only on studying and do not perform any purification practices or work at accumulating merit, may learn something but they will never be able to complete their studies. Instead, they will encounter many obstacles and find it difficult to understand the treatises, especially the teachings on emptiness.

Then there are those who do not study at all thinking, “Studying is not important. I will concentrate on accumulating merit and purifying my negative karma. That is enough.” There is no way such people can realise emptiness without Listening to, studying and reflecting on the great treatises, especially the presentations on dependent origination.

Can we realise emptiness and the meaning of dependent origination simply by making requests to the guru-deities? This is also impossible. We may supplicate our guru-deities with single-pointed faith, “Please grant me blessings to realise emptiness.” But that alone will not bring the realisation we seek.

So, the three things must go together hand-in-hand: supplicating our guru-deities, studying and analysing the great treatises, accumulating merit and purifying negativities. This is what Lama Tsongkhapa did and we should follow his example.

Doing our own Dharma practice 

Whether we are prostrating or reciting OM MANI PADME HUM it is our responsibility to make this beneficial for our minds by doing this happily and willingly from our hearts. It is a mistake to think that studying or listening to the teachings is purely to accumulate information and knowledge, leaving our hearts and minds untouched.

We have to do our own Dharma practice. We should mind our own instead of other people’s business, focus on our practice and check our progress to see how far we have been able to apply what we have learnt. Dharma should be used to check up on ourselves, not others. It is not hard to find examples of good practitioners. When we look at the examples set by the holy beings, we should be inspired to strive and pray to be like them one day.

Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga 

And please remain stable, without separation from my body, speech,
And mind, until I attain enlightenment.

This is an important prayer from the Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga practice we have just recited. It is important for us to think and pray that Lama Tsongkhapa is in our hearts all the time. It makes a definite difference to our sense of being taken care of by him in all our future lives by being able to meet his teachings again. Meditating on the inseparability of the great Lama Tsongkhapa at our hearts is also one of the best ways of doing the protection wheel meditation to protect ourselves from spirit harms and the different kinds of obstacles.

We benefit from visualising with faith, Lama Tsongkhapa abiding in our hearts, as he embodies the protectors of the three lineages, Chenrezig, Manjushri and Vajrapani. This visualisation helps in developing a good heart since Lama Tsongkhapa is inseparable from Chenrezig. We also develop our wisdom because Lama Tsongkhapa is the manifestation of Manjushri and since he also embodies Vajrapani, it helps us to overcome our problems and obstacles. So if we do this practice with faith, we enjoy all these benefits. Furthermore, it will help us to meet Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings again in all our future lives.

There is also a great difference when we meditate on guru devotion conjoined with entrusting ourselves to Lama Tsongkhapa abiding in our hearts. This is because Lama Tsongkhapa, embodying the protectors of the three lineages, is the definitive spiritual master. Relying on him as our protector, with strong faith and with the determination to accomplish all his wishes and advice, he becomes our ultimate object of refuge.

There are many different kinds of prayers we can do on top of the many commitments we may have. But it will be very beneficial if we can do this visualisation with this short practice of Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga.

Increasing our happy thoughts 

Gungtang Rinpoche advises, “Even if you owned mountain-high piles of gold, enough to cover the entire country, at the time of death, you will not be able to bring along a single atom of it with you. On the other hand, by reciting a mantra like OM MANI PADME HUM just once, that can open the door to a good rebirth in your future life. Simply reciting OM MANI PADME HUM is very beneficial.”

Analysing our situation more deeply, we can understand that material wealth cannot really benefit us, even in future lives. In fact, the more we own, the more we grasp at these things, increasing our self-cherishing and attachment which only create more negative karma that will not benefit us in our future lives.

Sometimes, we think, “I will definitely achieve something and I will be happier and more satisfied if I am rich in this life.” But if we profess to attach greater importance to the happiness of our future lives, then having this kind of worldly goal is incorrect. If we are concerned with this life alone, then that is a different matter. Otherwise, our goal should not be like that.

Reciting OM MANI PADME HUM is just an example. We should engage in our meditation practice and daily prayers or a single recitation of OM MANI PADME HUM with the conviction and single-pointed faith that we will definitely achieve happiness in our future lives. We need to generate that faith of conviction and be happy with whatever we are doing. Rejoice that we are doing this wonderful practice. It would be very good if we can do this.

The whole point of practising the Dharma is to remove suffering and misery. Some people think like this: “I am just a nobody in this life. I am poor and will probably stay that way. I will never amount to anything.” Thinking like that only brings unhappiness.

Practising the Dharma is to increase whatever happy thoughts we may have. We need to know how to be happy. We should think: “Even if I do not become rich, at least now I have the opportunity to study and practise the teachings and I am creating the causes for happiness in my future lives.” We need to generate this belief, to have this faith of conviction and to feel happy doing our practices by seeing the purpose in what we are doing. In his advice, Gungtang Rinpoche is telling us to practise the Dharma because it creates the cause for our happiness. As the lam-rim says, at the time of death, only the Dharma helps.

Practice of nyung-nä  

I have been requested to talk a little about the nyung-nä practice, especially on how to mix it with what we have learnt so far about generating the altruistic intention. Gungtang Rinpoche says that if someone were to ask this question: “If there is a very evil person who has accumulated a great deal of negative karma, what is the best and fastest way for him to create the cause for and to achieve enlightenment?” His reply would be, “The best practice for such a person would be the nyung-nä.”

It was mentioned in the previous lesson that a single recitation of OM MANI PADME HUM definitely becomes a cause for us to experience happiness in our future lives.

Gungtang Rinpoche says that amongst all the mantras, the best one is OM MANI PADME HUM and reciting it with the nyung-nä practice has skies of inconceivable benefits.

His Holiness often says that reciting OM MANI PADME HUM is a very good practice. He points out that when we recite the mantras of Medicine Buddha, White Tara or Dzambala, our motivation for doing so is somehow connected to the affairs of this life. We recite the Medicine Buddha mantra for good health or to get rid of sicknesses. We recite the White Tara mantra to clear life obstacles and for longevity and we recite the Dzambala mantra for wealth.

But when we recite OM MANI PADME HUM we do so solely with the motivation to benefit others and to develop a good heart. His Holiness said that it is a very good thing to recite OM MANI PADME HUM because the motivation is very good. That is why we can say that OM MANI PADME HUM is probably the best of all the mantras.

Whatever we do, when it is mixed with the affairs of this life, it is difficult for these activities to be Dharma. For anything to be Dharma, it cannot be mixed with grasping at the happiness of this life. All the valid texts say the same thing.

In the nyung-nä sadhana, there is the practice of the self and front generation of the deity. If you have received the Great Chenrezig initiation, on the basis of holding divine pride, you generate yourself as Chenrizig with clear appearance and you proceed with the rest of the practice.

The most important things to do in a nyung-nä practice are:

  1. Generating divine pride of oneself as the deity with clear appearance.
  2. Seeing one’s fellow retreatants as the deity one has self-generated.

In this way, there is no basis for jealousy, competitiveness, pride, anger and so forth to arise. This is the ideal way of doing nyung-nä.

The motivation for doing nyung-nä should be to benefit others. The motivation should not be purely to purify sicknesses or spirit harm nor should it be to fulfil a commitment, so that one is only doing it out of obligation. Rather, the motivation for doing the nyung-nä should be to purify our minds of obscurations and negative karma in order to quickly achieve enlightenment for the benefit of others. We usually do not think in this big way but only consider limited worldly goals. But when we focus on the big picture, then all the small obstacles will be eliminated along the way, without our having to even think about them.

Since the nyung-nä is a Mahayana practice, it has to be done with the Mahayana motivation of benefiting others, without any self-interest. When we have the thought, “I am doing this to get rid of my obstacles,” that is a selfish motivation. When the nyung-nä is done with such a motivation, it is questionable whether the practice is Dharma. When the motivation is insincere and does not come from the heart, the whole practice is no longer Dharma. Not only is it not Dharma, you have to spend two or three days suffering with no food and water, feeling tired and, perhaps, even generating anger.

So it is very important to try, as far as possible, to have the correct motivation for doing the practice. Of course, that is not easy because our self-cherishing is very strong. But the point is to try to have a good motivation as far as possible.

Relating the nyung-nä to what we have studied so far, you should take the opportunity to reflect on the faults of the self-cherishing attitude. You should investigate from every angle how your self-cherishing attitude is the source of all your unwanted experiences, problems and suffering. You should also examine how cherishing others is the source of happiness.

During the nyung-nä, you can start by practising with the persons sitting on your left and right, thinking how you are all equal in the sense of wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. Even if there had been some misunderstanding or conflict in the past with these people, think: “That person wants to be happy just like me. Like me, that person does not want to suffer.”  On that basis, try to remove those feelings of resentment and aversion and try to help one another.

When you engage in the nyung-nä practice, you do so with your body, speech and mind. Physically, you will probably be making many prostrations. You will be using your speech to recite the prayers and mantras. When you are reciting the mantras, it is not like ordinary speech. You should remember the power and the benefits of reciting the mantra of Chenrezig. Mentally, you guard against the arising of anger and attachment for the duration of the nyung-nä. The essential thing is to do the practice, as far as possible, always with the thought to benefit others and to try to minimise the thoughts of jealousy, competitiveness and so forth.

Generating oneself as the deity and also seeing the other participants as deities during the retreat means there would be no basis for anger to arise, since we should not be angry at a deity. Instead, you should cultivate mutual respect and consideration for one another. If you can do this, then the practical benefit will be that you can continue to be friends with that person even after finishing the nyung-nä.

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