Buddhism ultimately is not about making ourselves comfortable and well adjusted in samsara. It is about getting off that wheel entirely, by ending what they call the uncontrolled rebirth that arises out of confusion. We have to be careful in caring for each other and adapting to circumstances that we don’t reify the self, and reinforce our suffering.
There is something that comes before all other contemplation, that if it is lacking whatever time and energy is spent in studying is as good as wasted. I’m referring here to a clarity of mind that grasps what’s being talked about, and that can understand it and make connections with our own life, at least to some extent. If we are not moved inwardly by what we hear or read, then something essential is missing.
The thought of extraordinary individuals has the power to shift what we conceive of as possible in this human realm. It also changes what we think of our teachers, ourselves, and our brothers and sisters. A saint, both in the East and in Western traditions, is something more than a good person, or someone of exemplary character. Moving past this mundane conception, we enter into a supernatural framework for understanding the lives and influence of a saintly person.
Jason Espada read his exquisite poetry in praise of Tara, the female buddha of compassion:
Spiritual beauty bringing light, giving hope, removing obstacles, calming fear, pacifying suffering, and protecting, bringing harmony to every surrounding circumstance, bringing life, health, happiness, good fortune, and stability.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, we learn to see ourselves and all others like this, as essentially divine, transparent beings of light. We interact continually with others and this world, receiving blessings and responding compassionately as needed. At first we do this as an act of imagination, but gradually we learn to see that this is how things actually are, all by themselves. At that time, what we call prayer, in thought, word, and action are entirely natural.
We may like to think that we know what the mind is – we speak of it so casually, but how well do we really know this mind of ours? For some of us at times, our inner state can change, and moods can appear as if out of nowhere, but is it destined to be as random as that? What control can we have over our own experience? When it comes to the mind, I’m thinking now, some things should not be a complete mystery.
Where there is suffering, either in ourselves or in our world, it is because there has been a lack of attention, love, and understanding. Now, each breath, each look, each thought we direct towards ourselves can be brimming with love, Each step, and every attentive moment can be like a gentle caress.
Most of our life in the world is the mind directed outwards. For most of us, this is how it needs to be, but we know there is this whole inner world of ours that is the foundation for the quality of our entire life, and all our relationships. If that inner life is thriving, healthy, enriched, liberated, illumined, then everything we do gets that benefit.
Where despair feels like surrender, compassion has no quit in it. The doubting mind is also closely tied to fear, and it is a small and contracted state, but the mind of compassion is broad and clear and fearless. It imagines great things, such as clean water, and people being fed and housed, and gets to work to get them done.
People go on retreat because it enables them to have insight, and access to inner resources, of creativity, intelligence and love that they can’t reach as easily at home. This has proven itself from generation to generation, and in every culture where Buddhism has become established. When on retreat, we ‘dig a channel to the ocean’, so to speak, and then our daily practice is a matter of keeping this channel open, and drawing forth resources we all have available to use in our daily life, relationships, and social work.