View, meditation and conduct

The term view means the right understanding of the Buddhist path. Meditation is the actual practice, and conduct is the discipline necessary to stay on the path. The view is a very profound guide to meditation. Without proper knowledge of the teachings, many obstacles can arise due to mistakes in the practice. Naturally, if you do not know anything about meditation you won’t recognize them as mistakes. This is why before you start practicing, you should first develop a correct understanding. You will then be able to recognize obstacles and the meditation will progress. In this way view and meditation are connected.

Conduct is based on the understanding of karma. Right conduct means to ensure that actions, whether through our body or our speech, are not influenced by disturbing emotions. If actions are tainted, negative karma is created. For example, if we let ourselves be influenced by anger, we may harm people or we may possibly even kill. Motivated by anger, a great deal of ill will and negativity do arise. Right conduct means to be free of those influences. Instead, we let our actions be guided by positive qualities such as compassion.

Like meditation, conduct is also influenced by our view because right understanding leads naturally to right conduct. Some people have problems with this. For example, we understand the teachings, and have the right view and yet we do not follow it. This is due to difficulties with our own emotions. Even learned people can act negatively because they can have the right understanding without the right meditation. Meditation is the means to conquer the negative emotions. The right view provides the understanding of how to overcome them.

If we want to become liberated, then our own negative emotions are our real enemy. We can learn how to overcome disturbing emotions by studying the Abhidharmakosha. This text explains in detail how to overcome negative emotions, and even how long it will take. Such teachings can also be found in the Prajnaparamita. In the Vajrayana, they can be found in the Sabmo Nang Gi Don where it explains that by calculation, it takes three years, three months and three days of practice to remove all samsaric problems. To study such texts is to become a learned person and to understand the path. However, someone who has completed a three year retreat could be seated on a stage and recite everything by heart without necessarily being enlightened at all. This means that his emotions are still stronger than his knowledge because he has not followed the path personally. Emotions can then overpower the view if the emotions are not conquered through meditation.

There are many different obstacles on the path. By knowing them, you will see which ones are in your Dharma practice. To meditate, you need the right understanding or you will make many mistakes. Meditation without understanding is very risky. You may know a little bit about meditation, but this is not sufficient to develop your practice over a long period of time. It is not enough to simply imagine what it is. Overcoming obstacles is about cause and effect and the knowledge that things are connected. Conduct generally is related to karma. The specific behavior to be applied depends on the developed level of practice.

In Vajrayana, samaya is important. It is more than receiving an empowerment or practicing a certain aspect of Buddha mind, samaya means proper conduct. We need to avoid any behavior that would harm our practice. For example, while you are engaged intensively in the calm abiding meditation (Tib. shi-nay, Skt. shamatha) it is wrong to think that you would rather be doing a higher practice like Mahamudra. It is not right to practise a higher meditation before having successfully built the foundation for it. Of course, the intention to practise a higher teaching like Mahamudra is positive but the wrong timing makes it a hindrance. If you already cannot successfully practice shi-nay now, then Mahamudra would be even more so challenging later on. Another caution for those engaged in shi’nay is not to eat too much. If you eat a lot, you will feel sleepy. Your meditation cannot go well. This is why Buddha said that monks should not take the evening meal.

View, meditation, and conduct are therefore practically connected. Buddhism does not simply prescribe rules to people but more importantly, it provides practical methods to achieve results. There are no arbitrary rules like, for example, to belong to a religious group one must wear a certain hat…. despite the fact that I do have a red crown. (Each incarnation of the “Shamar” Rinpoche line traditionally wears a red hat.)

Right view ultimately means to understand the meaning of the Madhyamaka. Madhyamaka is the quintessential view of the highest meditations of Mahamudra and Maha Ati. These high meditations cannot be practised without understanding the Madhyamaka view. Perhaps there are other high meditations that I do not know about, but Mahamudra and Maha Ati lead us to Buddhahood. First, the Madhyamaka explains the right view. Then, based on this view, special meditation methods developed and were compiled and have been given names like Mahamudra and Maha Ati. The view and the meditation are separately represented. For example, in the practice of Chod, there is a ritual execution where one actually plays a big damaru (a ritual drum) and so on. Such details are not described in the Madhyamaka. However, without the Madhyamaka view, one cannot do this practice. There is more to it than just the sound of the drum.

In Mahamudra and Maha Ati there is much said about the nature of mind. This means that when the meditator recognizes the actual meaning of Mahamudra or Maha Ati, he is enlightened on the spot. But just try to do it. We joke about it. Many people who have studied these teachings would say, “Mahamudra and Maha Ati are the highest meditations. I have studied them for many years and now I know.” But that would mean that they have been enlightened for a long time. To recognize the nature of mind is to become enlightened. In the teachings of Maha Ati, it is said that if one begins this practice in the evening, one is enlightened the next morning. If one starts in the morning then one is enlightened in the evening. That is only twelve hours, isn’t it? If someone says that he knows it because he has studied it for many years yet if he is still not enlightened, then what does he really know? It is not so easy.

You may have heard that you should see the guru as the essence of all Buddhas. Take for instance that I agreed to be your guru and to show you the nature of your mind. You might get very excited because it seems so direct and special. Afterwards when you go home, you would think, “Today I have received a profound meditation from my guru.” But look at yourself. What has actually changed in you? You should then come back to view, meditation and conduct.

Milarepa received the teachings from Marpa and then practised alone. He conducted himself to practise twenty-four hours a day in his cave, fully concentrated. But he also sang many songs. Often he meditated and afterwards he would sing a song. Why did he do that? It was his knowledge of meditation that guided his practice. The songs contained this knowledge. He sang them often as a reminder to himself. In the course of his practice, certain methods were necessary at certain times. He would compose a verse to rekindle his knowledge from memory. Although he never studied poetry, he was very good at composing it. Whenever his meditation needed it, he would compose a precise poem. If you read the life story of Milarepa you will notice that he sang songs at important junctures in his practice. When he encountered obstacles, he would recall various methods from memory. In this way Milarepa’s knowledge guided his meditation.

The Madhyamaka teaches logically and precisely that phenomena and beings do not really exist, what mental confusion is, and how illusion arises in the mind. It teaches how, if you practise, you can become free from the neuroses, attachments, and the habit of believing in concrete existence. You can remove all of them if you understand very precisely the Madhyamaka view. According to the Madhyamaka view of emptiness, all substantial phenomena are heaps (Skt. skandhas) composed of particles. The particles are then examined metaphysically by breaking them down until even the smallest particle is found not to have any real existence. You then examine mental projections in the same way. It is explained that mind itself is emptiness. It is an accumulation of momentary thoughts, none of which exist independently but arise in dependence on one another. Therefore even mind itself does not have a solid existence either. That is how the Madhyamaka explains emptiness. But then, if we punch the wall now, our hand will still hurt! Although you understand through logic that there is no real existence, you cannot yet experience what it really means. It is not just simply explaining that everything is nonexistent. Logic alone is not enough to remove the illusion. Grounded in the Madhyamaka view, meditations, which build upon one another, have to be practised.

What will we achieve by the methods? The Madhyamaka explains that all things are empty. But we do not want to achieve sheer emptiness – what would be the benefit of that? Understanding emptiness will help us achieve a deeper understanding of mind through Mahamudra, the core of the Madhyamaka. We will realize that it is neither the outer world that imprisons us in samsara nor our body. It is neither the universe nor our physical body that is in samsara – it is our mind. The point is to examine mind with the precise logic of the Madhyamaka. When we are properly oriented towards the mind, we have the correct view. To apply this view of the mind in practice, to simply let the mind experience this very view is the Mahamudra experience in one instant.

To experience Mahamudra, great concentration is necessary. This is why it is so important to first practise shi-nay. Without the stability of shi-nay, the view of mind is like a flame in the wind. One moment it is there, in the next, it is gone. If you try to have the right view without mental stability, a short insight may come up but the untamed mind is unable to sustain it. Before you can hold the view without interruption, statements like “one can achieve enlightenment in one instant” make no sense.

Develop first the view. Next, on this basis, develop a direct experience of the mind and practise it without interruption. When the right view of mind is developed it is an awakening from ignorance. This view must be held continuously. Without mental stability it will disappear again.

(edited) Published in “Buddhism Today” 1997