|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.
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
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
Placing imprints in our mental continua
The essence of the Buddha’s teachings is summarised in the three principal aspects of the path: renunciation, bodhicitta and the correct view.
Since we now enjoy the favourable conditions of having obtained this precious human rebirth and meeting the teachings, even if we cannot generate the realisation of the three principal aspects of the path in our minds, at the very least, we should put effort into placing stable imprints of these teachings in our mental continua.
Imprints can be placed in our mental continua through hearing, reflecting, meditating and familiarising ourselves with the teachings. How does this work? Imprints that come from hearing arise from the activity of listening to the teachings on the three principal aspects of the path. Without listening to these teachings, we would not receive any imprints through hearing. In the same way, this applies to reflection and meditation as well.
The strength of those imprints of the teachings would vary in power in dependence on the manner in which we engage in the activities of listening, reflection and meditation.
It is very arrogant of us to expect the teachings to come of their own accord into our minds, without our exerting any effort to familiarise ourselves with them. When we do not put in the effort from our own side to receive and familiarise ourselves with the teachings on the three principal aspects of the path, and to secure imprints of these teachings in our mindstreams, nothing will happen.
We need to remember that we have obtained this human rebirth now and we have some knowledge of what is to be abandoned and cultivated. Capitalising on this opportunity, we must place strong imprints of the teachings in our minds and keeping this in mind, we must then engage in the act of listening to the teachings.
Reaping benefit from the teachings depends on us
Whether the teachings will benefit us or not does not depend on the teachings. It depends on how we apply them, whether we reflect on them and mix the teachings with our minds. We cannot expect the teachings, from their side, to change our minds if we do not do anything with them. There are some people who think, “What is the use of coming for teachings? The Dharma is not benefiting me.” This is not the fault of the teachings but rather reflects their failure to relate the teachings to their minds.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama often mentions that there is a noticeable difference between someone who accepts and practises the Dharma and someone who does not. Why? The person who practises the Dharma is a happier person who is more able to handle difficulties and problems when they arise, as compared to someone who has no faith or Dharma. Someone who accepts the teachings should have the ability to apply the teachings for a beneficial purpose and to use them to deal with problems and difficulties.
Taking the medicine
The Buddha said in the King of Concentration Sutra:
I have explained this very good teaching.
Yet if you, having heard it, do not practise correctly,
Then just like a sick person holding on to a bag of medicine,
Your illness cannot be cured.
This verse applies to us because we may have listened to many teachings but we still find it difficult to reflect on their meaning and are unable to put them into practice. That is why we do not see any improvement in ourselves.
In fact, it sometimes seems that we are experiencing even more mental unhappiness and suffering than before. This is the fault of not having reflected properly on the meaning of the teachings that we have heard. We are just like the patient who carries around the bag of medicine without taking any. When we do not take the medicine, there is no way that we can recover from our sickness.
We need to reflect on the meaning of the teachings that we have heard, in order to remove our problems and the suffering which have been with us, and which we have endured for a very long time.
We need to understand that the Buddha is actually referring to us when he talks about the patient carrying the bag of medicine. We need to put down the bag of medicine, open it and start taking the medicine. It is not enough to just hear the teachings. We must start reflecting on them.
We are now studying the text, Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds, which contains many wonderful pieces of advice and teachings. It may be difficult to put the teachings into practise immediately but, at the very least, we should reflect on the meaning of the words found in the text. We should not simply leave it at the level of listening or looking at the words. We have to try to reflect on the meaning of the words themselves.
It is important to reflect on, as much as we can and to the best of our abilities, what we have learnt, and the meaning of whatever prayers we may be reciting.
Why is it that we remain as we are and do not seem to change and improve? It boils down to the fact that we did not reflect on what we had heard.
All of us have to try our very best to reflect on the meaning of the words of the teachings that we had heard and try to improve our own minds, because improving the state of our minds is an individual responsibility.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s holy wish for the centre is to produce good-hearted human beings, not simply students with some intellectual understanding of the teachings. That is his real wish. We should all try our very best to make this happen. It is not easy. It is difficult but we have to try our best.
Advice by Gungtang Rinpoche: Our sad situation
It is important to reflect daily on whatever you have heard and found beneficial from the teachings. Use whatever you have heard and apply it in your daily life. If you do not use the teachings in this way, you accomplish little by merely listening.
This is advice from the teachings of Gungtang Rinpoche called Songs of Expressing Sadness. In one of these songs, he laments that although, in reality, it is the guru who shows us the path and protects us in this life and all our future lives, in practice, we make our own decisions without relying on him.
We may think or even say that there is a need for us to rely on the instructions of our teachers and recognise that our guru is the embodiment of the three refuges. But, in our daily lives, we do not pay any heed to his advice or consider our teacher’s instructions to be important.
Gungtang Rinpoche points out now we have attained this precious human rebirth of leisure and opportunities that is very difficult to achieve and which gives us the opportunity to accomplish so much. We know this and can even explain it to others. Yet when we examine our lives carefully, most of the time we are spending them doing meaningless things. When we reflect in this way and realise this, it is a cause for regret and something to be very sad about.
Rinpoche’s advice is very good and beneficial especially if we are able to remember it in our daily lives. For example, when we can explain to others the benefits of this perfect human rebirth, but do not put it to good use ourselves, then we are in fact wasting our own precious human rebirth.
In our daily lives we treasure our possessions and wealth and take great care to protect them from thieves and robbers. But we are not very careful with our life span, which is being exhausted and stolen every moment by the Lord of Death. We should be very sad about this also.
We also pursue and hanker after teachings and instructions on hidden phenomena, which are not perceivable or manifest, such as emptiness, bodhicitta, tantra and so forth. But we do not pay any attention to those instructions that deal with subjects that are very obvious and accessible, such as death and impermanence. Again, this is a very sad situation.
I am quoting some extracts from this set of advice as they are short and would be most beneficial if you can remember them in your daily life.
Proper reliance on the words of the texts
Just as an elderly person needs a walking stick to walk properly, we need to rely on and memorise the words of the texts in order to understand the meaning of the teachings. In order for us to really learn the teachings, first, we must have a really good grasp of the words of the text that we would have memorised.1
But memorising the words alone is not enough when we do not pay any attention to or reflect on the meaning of those words. For example, if we sit in a puja, reciting the prayers without reflecting on their meaning, we are no better than parrots. This is not the correct way to do pujas. If we teach a parrot to recite OM MANI PADME HUM it can recite that 108 times quite easily. But that is about it.
Without reflection on the meaning of the words of the teachings that we have received, we will be unable to correct any wrong or mistaken understanding on our part. The teachings should be investigated in depth.
In order to study the scriptures of the Buddha, first, we must rely on the words. We must know the words of the text. But that alone is not sufficient. We must also reflect on the meaning of those words.
That way of studying is not done here due to the lack of time. In the monasteries, we memorize all the root texts that we are studying and read the commentaries. But here, when the different verses are being explained, at the very least, we can check whether we are able to understand the meaning of each of those verses.
The quality of the meditation
The difference between a Buddhist who has studied and reflected on the teachings extensively (hereinafter referred to as ‘A’) and a Buddhist who has done neither (hereinafter referred to as ‘B’) can be seen in the quality of their meditation. ‘A’ will be able to meditate in a very extensive way while ‘B’ will find difficulties in sustaining his meditation.
When reciting the refuge prayer, at the mere mention of “Sang gyä” (Buddha in Tibetan) ‘A’ will be able to reflect in the following way: “Who is the Buddha? He is in the entity of the four holy bodies2 and is someone who has eliminated all faults and perfected all his good qualities.” Being familiar with such reflections, ‘A’ is able to recall many different aspects of the refuge practice instantly and his faith in the Buddha increases.
When ‘B’ recites, “Sang gyä” however, he may only recall the Buddha as the historical figure who achieved enlightenment under the bodhi tree over 2,500 years ago. It would be difficult for someone like ‘B’ to have any deep sense of faith. If this is so for a person like ‘B,’ then obviously there would be even less faith in someone who has not even heard of the historical Buddha.
When ‘A’ recites “chhö” (Dharma in Tibetan), he will immediately understand that there is conventional and ultimate Dharma, and the object of refuge here is not merely the physical scriptures themselves, but their contents, which clarify the true path3 and true cessation.4
Understanding that the Dharma is the actual refuge and thinking that, “This is what protects me,” will definitely increase ‘A’s’ faith. He will then generate the faith of aspiration, which is the mind that aspires to actualise the Dharma.
When ‘B’ recites “chhö,” he may only recall the physical texts and he is unlikely to have the same level of faith as ‘A.’
When ‘A’ recites, “Tshog kyi chhog nam la” (I go for refuge to the Supreme Assembly), he understands immediately that the Sangha Jewel refers here to all the arya beings, including the hearer superior beings, the solitary realiser superior beings and the bodhisattva superior beings.
He knows the inconceivable qualities of these holy beings, and in particular, how the superior bodhisattvas practise at each level, actualising all the ten perfections and how they achieve the higher realisations on the path. Based on such understanding and knowledge, irreversible faith will arise in ‘A’s’ mind towards these arya beings and he will aspire to emulate their example. ‘A’ will never give up his faith in the Three Jewels regardless of whatever conditions he may encounter.
When ‘B’ recites, “Tshog kyi chhog nam la,” he will only remember that the Sangha refers to the ordained community and he is reminded to be respectful towards them. With such limited understanding, it is very difficult to have real faith in the Sangha Jewel because it is difficult to see all ordained persons as pure and perfect and one may end up criticising them or questioning the benefit of ordination.
The difference between ‘A’ and ‘B’ is very clear from simply examining the quality of their refuge practice. The Buddhist who has studied will have stable and irreversible faith while the Buddhist who does not study will give up his faith easily when faced with the smallest obstacle.
We should put into practice, familiarise ourselves with and reflect upon whatever we have learnt. Even if we engage in extensive listening and reflection, it would not be beneficial without such mental familiarity.
Using the earlier example of refuge, we can apply it to other topics and see the difference between engaging in practice with understanding and with little or no understanding. When we realise the benefits of studying and reflection, the aspiration to do so will arise naturally from our own side. When this happens, no matter what difficulties we encounter, we will try our best to come to class and listen to the teachings.
Lama Tsongkhapa said, “At the outset, seek extensive teachings. In the middle, reflect on whatever you have learnt. In the end, day and night, put into practice the understanding of the teachings that you have ascertained. This is what I have done. You who want to follow after me should do likewise.”
1 This advice was intended for those studying in the monasteries. [Return to text]
2 The four holy bodies of the Buddha are the Truth Body (made up of the Wisdom Truth Body and the Nature Body) and the Form Body (made up of the Enjoyment Body and Emanation Body). [Return to text]
3 The antidotes to our afflictions. [Return to text]
4 What we achieve once all our afflictions are abandoned. [Return to text]