Ask the Lama: Lama Surya Das
Dear Lama Surya Das,
I recently listened to one of your “Natural Perfection” tapes and liked what you said about people NOT having to meditate. I think some of us are suffering under a perceived (or projected) meditation culture that virtually stigmatizes those who do not sit well or practice consistently. Everybody doesn’t have to sit a whole weekend, or morning, or hour. Right?
Sitting Some But Not Too Often
Dearest Sitting Some,
This is a very interesting and fairly common question. So let me answer by getting right to the point. Yes, that’s right. The truth is that there’s a lot more to authentically liberating and transformative spirituality–and even to the path of Buddhism– than just meditating. “Sitting some” is fine. The real question is: What else are you doing with your life? People occasionally ask me in public forums, “Why do I have to meditate?” And I always reply, “Who said you have to?” Who says we have to get enlightened? What is our motivation? What are we looking for or even lacking, for that matter?
Sometimes I think there’s too much tight-lipped silence, grim sitting and bowing going down in the Buddhist ghetto, and that we could all use a little more Dharma stand-up! If the Buddha lived today, I suspect he’d add a few extra innings to his famous Eight-fold Path to Enlightenment, such as Good Exercise, Good Parenting and Good Humor. For a man cannot live by serious religiosity alone. Take my word for it, I’ve tried.
To think that Buddhism is all about meditation is to misunderstand it. Westerners attracted to Buddhism and Eastern thought and practice often make the mistake of seeing meditation in the most narrow sense of going into a quiet room and closing your eyes. In fact, there’s a lot more to these things, both externally, internally, and ultimately, as Tibetan commentators describe the process of spiritual development. Mindfulness is not the same as meditation; it can be practiced formally while sitting and while walking, as is done in traditional Buddhist monasteries and retreat centers, or informally in whatever activity in which we may be engaged. Being present, wakeful and showing up fully in our life is more important than any particular posture or set of words.
There’s a renowned Dzogchen teaching called “Buddhahood Without Meditation.” There is even a book by that name, translated from Dudjom Lingpa’s original Tibetan teaching. This startling title points to the fact that we are all Buddhas by nature, we only have to recognize and awaken to that fact. A related teaching is called “Buddhahood in the Palm of One’s Hand.” Both of these simply point to the fact that what we seek, we are; that nirvana is not far away, in future time or in another place, but inseparable from samsara (the cycle of birth and death governed by karma) and found hidden in the here and now. There are numerous stories and teaching tales in the classical enlightenment literature about karmically ripe individuals experiencing awakenings –while engaged in all kinds of ordinary activities.
Meditation is more about being than doing, introducing and unveiling a new way of seeing, far beyond sitting or just keeping still. Yet there inevitably is some appropriate effort, intention, and attention involved. There is no way around this. Meditation is how many Buddhists pray. Yet meditation practice is more of a listening than the usual supplicant’s so-called conversation with God.
Buddha called meditative awareness—or mindfulness– the main ”factor of enlightenment.” However, Buddha outlined seven factors of enlightenment, including also developing the qualities of joy, equanimity, perseverance, concentration, serenity, and analytical investigation; if you are deeply wise, these seven are well balanced. The Buddhist path to enlightenment actually includes not one but three liberating trainings: ethical self discipline, meditation, and wisdom. Without the other two, meditation alone is not enough.
If we ask how to undertake and accomplish the path of enlightenment, and how to implement and practice these three trainings, they are broken out into the renowned Eight-fold Path taught by Buddha himself as the way to accomplish what he accomplished and eventually become just like him. Again, notice that in these traditional eight steps to enlightenment, there are practices such as Wise Livelihood, which are not solitary or contemplative but engage us fully in daily life, although mindfulness and loving kindness at our tasks is recommended and helps in many ways. Love at work, compassion in action, spiritual and social activism, karma yoga as well as devoting ourselves to the welfare of the world are an important part of spiritual practice in all the great traditions. Mother Teresa said that “We can’t all do great things, but doing small things with great love makes them great.”
The heart of every spiritual path without exception is some kind of basic morality and self-discipline. If we wish to live wisely and contribute to a better world, we must try to become better people–authentic people, honest, straightforward, decent and even unselfishly good. Practices such as truth-telling, non-harming, peacemaking, balancing, showing generosity and engaging in selfless service are too often overlooked in the grace race to achieve higher states of blessedness; yet all these are yogas, if you will, that help you connect with the divinity– however you conceive of it–and the inherent beauty and sacredness of life. Yoga means union, that which yokes us to the highest and deepest form of spirit.
In olden days I was like a teenage Buddha statue and used to meditate a lot, often all day, in my teacher’s Tibetan monastery in the East. Now, wherever I am, I meditate, sinking roots deep into the present moment and extracting (thriving on) its essence. But there are innumerable ways to worship and awaken. “There are countless ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” sang the Sufi poet-saint Rumi. Especially in our diverse, multicultural, pluralistic era, I feel we must be respectful and tolerant of the many options people have discovered for pursuing spiritual development, even within each faith, not to mention among the different faiths. Moreover, we must be patient with ourselves and our karmic condition, and avoid indulging in guilt, shame and self-bashing in the name of deep spiritual aspiration.
Of course, to a Buddhist monk or nun or dedicated Buddhist practitioner, meditation is an important part of every day, as it is for me and has been for over thirty years. But I am a slow learner! How long does it take to wake up? Perhaps you can do it your own way. The rich and deep Dharma teachings are all there, freely available, for whoever wants to avail themselves of them. Help yourself. As the Buddha said, “Come and see.”
One of my favorite Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, wrote: “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank You,’ that is sufficient.”
Here is an instant mini-meditation for you. l bet you can do this every day, without too much stress, anywhere, anytime, with or without closing your eyes.
Breathe, relax, and smile.
Breathe, relax, and smile.
Breathe relax, and smile.
Outdoors or inside,
Enjoy the joy of natural meditation.