The heart of Dharma practice: the three trainings

by Karma Wangdu on 2 June, 2014

Teaching Day 2

30th May, 2014. Session 2.
Nuerburgring, Germany.


Having contemplated the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma, and having understood the purpose of Dharma practice, how should one practise Dharma?  His Holiness addressed this issue by giving a short explanation of each of the three trainings in ethical conduct, meditation, and wisdom.  “All of Dharma practice is contained in these three,” he said.

The first training is in conduct. Human beings, unlike most other sentient beings, have moral discernment: we can distinguish between what to do and what not to do. But we often make mistakes because we are too short-sighted; we focus on temporary benefits and do not consider the long term.

The 17th Karmapa is well-known for his concern for the environment and his appeal for a world with less greed and more compassion.  As an illustration of focusing on temporary benefits, he spoke of how, in order to gain short-term comforts for themselves,  humans have created long-term effects which are causing great harm to other living beings and the environment. His Holiness stressed that we should never exploit the world we live in for the purpose of short-term benefits.  He suggested that too many people regard the earth as an object that they can use as they like, and ultimately all her resources will be exhausted. But the earth provides for all our needs and gives us life.

“Rather than considering the Earth as a material thing, we should consider it as a mother who nurtures us;from generation to generation we need this loving mother,” he urged.

In addition, because of our self-centred attitude, we commit grave errors. On an individual level, we sometimes do things which cause harm to many others in order to ensure our own comfort.  On a larger scale, one country might destroy the peace and happiness of other countries solely for its own benefit. Similar actions can be directed against different ethnic groups or different religions. Returning to an environmental theme, His Holiness gave a further example of our selfishness, reminding everyone of the cruelty and disregard with which humans treat defenceless wildlife. We destroy their habitats, dispossess them, and even kill them for our own benefit. In summary:

“Right conduct means that when we understand what is best in the long-term for ourselves and for others, this becomes the motivation for our actions.”

The second training is in meditation. One of the reasons many Dharma practitioners do not make as much progress as quickly as they expect is because they have not developed good meditation skills in both calm-abiding and analytical meditation. Shamatha [calm abiding meditation] should make our minds clear, sharp, and focussed. The Karmapa observed that, ironically the 21st century is both the best and the worst of times to practice shamatha meditation.  It is extremely difficult because we have to live alongside so many distractions –computers, smart phones, entertainment and so on.

On the other hand, the 21st century could be the right time, because faced with the high degree of stress created by our frenetic lives, we realise the need to calm the mind and develop inner peace. The Mahamudra tradition of shamatha is particularly beneficial because it can be practised anywhere and everywhere in all the activities of everyday life. We can practise it sitting, walking, or while we are working.

Many people find it difficult to meditate. The 3rdKarmpapa Rangjung Dorje was once asked whether there was a method by which one could become enlightened without any meditation. His answer was, “Yes there is, but it will not be of benefit to you, because you will try to meditate on it.”

“We all understand why the human mind is sometimes called ‘monkey mind”’,  the Karmapa pointed out. So what causes obstacles when we try to meditate?  Is it too difficult for us?  “No”, His Holiness replied, “It’s because it’s too easy.”  We are accustomed to thinking and analysing everything. We are so used to always being active and keeping busy, it is very difficult to know how to rest in the natural state.

Although there are many different ways to practice shamatha, many masters prefer the technique of focussing on the breath, because breathing is both natural and unintentional. We have no choice but to do it, so we are not doing anything new, merely focussing on something which exists already—we just have to be aware.

Sometimes we have problems focussing on one thing because other thoughts arise. We may try to suppress them, but thoughts will keep on coming, so we should just let them be, and stay aware of the flow of thoughts.

In general, shamatha should be practised first, followed by vipasshyana. But in the practice of Mahamudra there is a union of the two. The classical Buddhist texts give instructions on how to measure the level but it is better to just give practical advice on how to practice this union.

For example, if a thought or emotion such as anger arises, there’s no need to suppress it or stop it, nor do we have to hang on to that thought; rather, we should just be aware of the thought. There’s no need to analyse or examine its nature— just look at it.

When a negative emotion arises, if you just let it be, it will disappear because it is not supported by the truth, like a liar who eventually loses credibility.

“When a negative emotion arises, there’s no need to be afraid or nervous, just look at that situation, regard that negative emotion as being like a person who tells lies. There’s no truth behind it,” he explained in English.

Then the negative emotion will lose its power, though this technique may not completely uproot the negative emotions. It is viewed as the union of the two forms of meditation, shamatha and vipasshyana, because your mind is peaceful but you are aware of the emotions and thoughts arising.  Thus you recognise the nature of your mind.

The fourth training is in sherab or wisdom. This is the method by which we are able to uproot the negative emotions and understand the nature of reality. Sherab—the wisdom which perceives the true nature of reality—is more than a philosophical or intellectual understanding. You experience directly the way things are. In order to develop this wisdom, we need to cultivate solitude; this is especially important for beginners. True solitude requires the outer condition of few distractions and the inner condition of a calm mind. These two conditions have to come together through the blessing of the teacher and the devotion of the student.

In the Vajrayana, students sometimes feel frightened of the Lama, but this is another misunderstanding. We should regard the teacher as our spiritual friend, someone who is a  hundred percent trustworthy, a good friend, who will show us the right direction and benefit us long term.

Traditionally, a student would spend most of the time with the teacher, and would never be far away. They would meet every day perhaps for discussion or for the student to give feedback to the lama.  This frequent interaction between student and teacher would  engender an exceptionally close relationship, so that the teacher could become a part of the student’s heart and mind.

These days, however, more often ,the teacher sits on the throne giving instructions and empowerments, and that closeness has been lost. The teacher may be somewhere in Asia and the student in Europe. Sometimes, though, despite this physical distance, there can be inner closeness. Conversely, if student and teacher stay together that does not guarantee closeness; there can be inner distance.

Finally, the Karmapa gave the reading transmission of the short ngondro practice the Mahamudra preliminaries  that he had composed, so that people could begin that practice if they wished.

He explained how this version of the ngondro had arisen out of necessity, and that it was suitable for busy people in the West, who might not  have time to read long sadhanas. He himself always encourages people to complete the longer traditional one whenever possible.

“So don’t do it just because it’s composed by me,” he concluded.