This is an interesting phenomenon, since Western society and culture tend to be both practical and pragmatic. Why do we lose our heads when it comes to the Dharma? If we do not cultivate a practical attitude focused on creating the best possible conditions to support our practice, an attitude of willingness to cut through all inner and outer distractions, then the Dharma will not penetrate our heart and mind.
The practical practitioner puts forth all the effort necessary to bring about meaningful change. We must support our practice by being mindful, deliberate, and undistracted. These qualities help us integrate the dharma in every situation we might face. Beyond developing these supports, if we wish to achieve realization, we need to increase our spiritual capacity and deepen our practice.
Left to our own devices, many of us find that our spiritual practice doesn’t deepen. We try all kinds of things to wake ourselves up. Like dharma tourists, we chase after different spiritual teachers. We sit weekend retreats. We practice daily. We listen to CDs and read books. We do cleanses and work with healers. Sometimes, when we are in the presence of a spiritual teacher, we may feel we understand the practice of meditation, but when we get home that understanding eludes us. This brings us to an even bigger question:
Is realization even possible for Western Buddhists?
Logically speaking, it must be possible, since we all possess buddhanature. provided that we rely on the right methods, realization is possible for everyone.
I, myself, follow the methods of the tradition called the secret Mantrayana Vajrayana. This Tibetan tradition has led countless yogis, both ancient and modern, to realize and manifest completely omniscient wisdom. I find it pragmatic to follow a tradition that other yogis who came before me have followed in order to achieve realization. I would hesitate to follow a tradition that has been changed or modernized, because the results of following such a path are unknown.
In our culture, we have a certain affinity for doing things our own way and for doing things that have never been done before. This is just the sort of impractical attitude that can cause obstacles in our dharma practice, because if we were to follow methods other than those taught and practiced by the lineage holders, we would have no idea what the results of our practice would be.
Certainty is key to being a practical practitioner.
The tradition of the secret Mantrayana Vajrayana teaches that spiritual capacity can only be developed on the bedrock of certainty. Certainty is the topic of one of Mipham Rinpoche’s most famous texts, Beacon of Certainty. The theme of certainty also permeates the tantric, or Vajrayana, tradition as a whole.
Whether we are on the path of sutra or tantra, we benefit from:
- being certain of our practice,
- being certain of the instructions for the practice and,
- being certain of the way practice should unfold when done correctly.
When we’ve developed certainty, we become a practical practitioner, because we become mindful and cognizant of our entire experience and our progress on the path.
Certainty is an ever-deepening principle. When we work with developing certainty, we have to start right at the very beginning, with intellectual certainty. We relate to the ordinary world around us with our intellect, so it makes sense that we also connect with practice using our ordinary, everyday mind and intellect. We use our intellect to analyze the words of a teaching and to try to make sense of the nuts and bolts of it. This is how we glean some understanding of the practice. But many of us mistake this basic understanding, this intellectual certainty, for wisdom and realization. They are not the same.
We could say that this intellectual process we go through is an aspect of wisdom, but it is ordinary, everyday wisdom rather than transcendental wisdom. That means it is based in dualistic mind. When we apply intellectual certainty, we see that it is quite practical, but it is not enough to cut through our deeply ingrained habits of doubt and skepticism.
For example, the root of the entire mahayana path is the development of bodhichitta, the awakened mind that experiences compassion for all beings. In the beginning, we need to develop intellectual certainty in bodhichitta as a concept, so we investigate. Bodhichitta is divided into the classifications of conventional and ultimate. Conventional bodhichitta is the twofold wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of self and others. Using our intellect, we can learn more about bodhichitta and deepen our certainty about what it means. We need at least a functional idea of bodhichitta to get beyond the charade of pretending to practice with it.
But to go beyond doubt and skepticism, we need to deepen our experience so we can change from having mere intellectual certainty to having experiential certainty. How does intellectual certainty give rise to experiential certainty? Intellectual certainty can be described as “understanding.” It can even be a deep and profound understanding of our practice. Taking again the example of awakening bodhichitta, we may develop the intellectual certainty that bodhichitta is beyond any partiality and contrivance; however, bodhichitta isn’t an intellectual experience. It is a genuine experience of feeling completely connected to each and every sentient being.
As ordinary practitioners, we can’t expect to experience the meaning of the dharma directly at every moment, but we may have glimpses of genuine experience. In the beginning, we may think to ourselves, “I understand what conventional bodhichitta is. It means that I could feel the same impartial compassion for each and every living being.” Sometimes, when we are sitting on the cushion or engaged in daily activities, we come across a situation or state of mind that moves us very deeply, and in those moments, we may actually have the experience of impartial compassion for sentient beings.
We’re able to recognize those experiences because we have the support of intellectual certainty. Without the support of our intellectual understanding, we could have an experience like that, but the moment might pass by without our being aware of it. So intellectual certainty is the basis for both an experience and the ability to recognize the experience. Catching a glimpse of the true meaning of our practice in this way gives rise to experiential certainty.
We should also know that experience is not the same as realization, however. These glimpses help us genuinely experience our practice, but they are limited, undeveloped, and seen through the lens of our dualistic vision.
Realization is possible if it is based on both intellectual certainty and experiential certainty. Without these two, realization is just something that we read about in a book or hear about in a teaching. It isn’t within our reach at all. How do intellectual and experiential certainty give rise to realization? Based on intellectual certainty, we are able to sit down and focus on a practice such as bodhichitta and catch glimpses of uncontrived and impartial loving-kindness and compassion. However, this experience is fleeting and unpredictable; we encounter it only by accident or by chance. Although it is larger than our ordinary, day-to-day state of mind, it is limited. We cannot sustain it, and we forget what it feels like when it isn’t there. According to the canon of Buddhist teachings, our momentary, uncontrived experience falls short of authentic realization, which is a thorough, complete, and lasting transformation of our ordinary mind.
Another way to understand the difference between experience and realization is that in the beginning we may feel the experience of the practice in our body. For example, when cultivating bodhichitta, we call to mind a being who is suffering and we may have a visceral reaction. We may feel a deep sense of connection and compassion toward that being, which we can extend outward to other beings. However, this is not true realization. Realization penetrates the mind. It colors our entire physical, mental, and spiritual experience, and does not simply arise from a visceral experience. It is, by definition, all pervasive.
Applying threefold certainty:
We can apply threefold certainty—intellect, experience, and realization—to any practice. For example, when we learn about tonglen practice, we receive teachings and reflect on how the practice works. Then, based on listening and contemplation, we start to engage with the practice by working with the breath. As we exhale, we send out our root of virtue to all sentient beings. We say “root of virtue” because this virtue has the ability to nurture and ripen happiness in ourselves and others. As we breathe in, we take in all of the suffering and negativity of sentient beings, with the wish that we may alleviate their pain. Through practicing tonglen more and more, we begin to experience glimpses of what it means to actually do tonglen. The practice is accompanied by the physical feeling of sending our root of virtue to others and actually taking in their suffering, hardships, and negativity. Probably some of us have had this feeling while practicing ton-glen. Over time, if we practice diligently, we will perfect the paramita of generosity based on this practice, and we will realize an unlimited ability to share everything we have, including our own body, loved ones, and wealth, with every sentient being without exception—without even a hair of doubt.
We can apply threefold certainty to ordinary shamatha techniques and even to tantric practices such as generation and perfection stages. In fact, we must apply threefold certainty to these practices; otherwise, perfectly pure realization of the path will not arise in us.
From the Editor: The article goes on to discuss the role of the Vajrayana teacher in the evolution of a student's certainty and the qualities of an authentic Vajrayana teacher. This has been omitted from this post but can be found in the source.
Certainty Gives Rise to Results
The dharma itself is a logical and practical system. The scriptures say, “The things that come earlier are the support for the things that come later.” We should do our best to start properly, taking the time to examine the spiritual guide, our own mind, and our goals in practice. When we do these things in the beginning, everything else falls into place: our practice gains momentum, we become confident about the true meaning of our practice, and our experience begins to resemble the instructions given by the spiritual guide. We look into our internal mirror to see how our practice is going, and we are inspired by what we see. Our energy for practice increases because we see how much it benefits us and everyone we know. When all these elements gradually come together, real change—and ultimately realization—dawns in the mind.
New Online Course: The Challenge of Practicing in the West
Anyen Rinpoche and his teaching partner Allison Choying Zangmo share what it takes to achieve realization. While the teachings are rooted in traditional, time-tested insights, they also speak directly to the challenges we face in the West. Rinpoche and Allison present their teachings in a unique format. Rinpoche speaks from his deep knowledge and experience of Vajrayana Buddhism and Allison reflects on the teachings from the perspective of a Western mind, helping to contextualize, digest, and integrate insights. learn more and register
Anyen Rinpoche is the founder and spiritual director of Orgyen Khamdroling Dharma Center in Denver. As a tulku, a master of Dzogchen and a scholar, he has taught in Tibet, China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and North America. He is the author of numerous books including The Union of Dzogchen and Bodhichitta and The Tibetan Yoga of the Breath.
From Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo:
As Rinpoche taught, certainty is something practical we can work on. It's not a given from the get-go. I appreciate that low entry level and how it relieves pressure to be certain.
What I was at one time most uncertain about is now what I am most certain about, intellectually and experientially, but new uncertainties get added on. All I can do is stay positive,thinking that when I catch an uncertainty, I'm already on the way to certainty if I treat it properly. So both certainties and uncertainties have their place in the big picture.
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