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Taming the Mind, Transforming Ourselves
Traleg Rinpoche describes the techniques of Buddhist meditation. Taming and transforming our wild passions involves the meditation of paying attention to the body and paying attention to our thoughts.
The practice of Buddhism must always begin with ourselves—with gaining some kind of understanding of where we are and what sort of beings we are. Transcendental concepts like buddhahood and nirvana may well represent our ultimate goal, but we will never become a buddha by ignoring our immediate human condition.
If we think of buddhahood and nirvana as realms that are far removed from our human condition, we will set up barriers between who we are and who we want to become. This kind of thinking only defers what we want to realize to some time in the future, because conceiving these realms of transcendence as having nothing in common with our everyday experience renders them unreachable. Thus they remain purely abstract concepts that have no real meaning to us as human beings.
Here are the three fundamentals points which ground our practice in the reality of being human and that are needed to transform ourselves on the spiritual path.
Dealing with Ourselves as We Are
As individuals, we have many different needs, and our spiritual need is one of the most important. It is only human beings who yearn to feel connected to something that is sacred and spiritual. If we are to have any hope of meeting that longing, we must first come in touch with ourselves.
According to the Buddhist tradition, we are on a journey whether we like it or not, because we are always in a state of transition. Sentient beings are referred to as drowa in Tibetan, which means “migrating creatures.” This is because we can never be in a particular place without moving physically, psychologically or spiritually. Whether we are thinking or sensing or experiencing emotions, everything is constantly being propelled or drawn forward. Emotions are “emotions in motion,” because even a state of agitation is a form of movement.
However, if we were not in a state of transition, we could not talk about transformation. Our life would be a closed book. But according to the Buddhist teachings, our lives are not closed books because of this constant forward movement. If we feel that we are stuck, that is only our misunderstanding of what is really going on, for something is always happening even if we do not notice it.
This is why Buddhist meditation is so important, because Buddhist meditation is designed for us to take notice of things. When we do not take notice, we feel that we are stuck. However, we are never really stuck because even the feeling of being stuck is a form of movement, ironically enough. In that sense, we are all pilgrims; we are all pilgrims on the move.
There is a story that illustrates this point very well. A meditator goes to a remote retreat hut to visit a meditation master who is renowned for his knowledge. The meditator hopes that this master has secrets and sacred texts that might be revealed to him. The master invites the meditator into his inner chamber and they sit down together. The meditator looks around to see where all the books are, but he cannot find any. He asks the master, “Where are your holy texts?” The master replies, “I haven't got any.” Then the master says, “But what about your holy texts?” The meditator responds, “I did not bring any, I am just a visitor here.” To which the master says, “Me too.”
We are all just visitors here. We are moving along in terms of time: we get older, we get sick, we get well, we get sick again. We are always moving in that way through life. We know that, but we do not know it, because we do not pay enough attention to this. All the same, we are on a journey whether we know it or not. Being a traveler through life, we encounter many different things and those things shape our lives and determine what we will become.
As human beings we also have many contradictions. We have an enormous capacity for kindness and love. However, we are also equally capable of cruelty, violence and many other things besides. We can be very understanding of other peoples' faults and then we can suddenly turn into an unforgiving, raging animal. We can be very courageous when we come across adverse circumstances and situations in life, while at the same time we can be cowardly. Sometimes we can be courageous in one instance and completely paralyzed by fear in the next. We can be very confident and display an enormous amount of self-esteem in certain situations, and then something triggers our self-doubt and we begin to feel inadequate, with our confidence totally shaken.
There is a whole litany of character traits like this in all of us. These are only examples, to highlight the necessity of paying attention to what sort of beings we are. We are the kind of beings who have these contrasting tendencies, who are open to all kinds of conflicting emotions.
Different religious or spiritual traditions have various methods for dealing with these aspects of our selves. The most common technique is called “taming the mind.” “Taming” refers to the fact that we have to domesticate our wild passions, which are divided into various categories by the different religious traditions. Catholicism refers to the “seven deadly sins,” while Buddhism talks about the “five kleshas” (conflicting emotions) of desire, anger, jealousy, pride and ignorance.
The usual approach is to employ some kind of ascetic method to discipline the mind and body. That discipline involves punitive measures, which may be either real or mentally exercised. Sometimes the body may even be subjected to physical tortures in order to rid it of negativities, because the body is seen as the locus within which all of the so-called “conflicting emotions” arise. In certain traditions, the body is seen as the place where sinful things occur and the means through which sins are committed. However, if the notion of “taming” or “subjugation” is not understood properly, the very means that we use to deal with our conflicting emotions may only exacerbate them. Instead of relieving them, we will only succeed in repressing, denying or fixating on them.
In Buddhism, taming is understood in terms of transforming the mind, which requires becoming aware of the conflicting emotions, rather than punishing them. By becoming aware of what is going on in our mind we can learn how to deal with it. We should not try to tame the mind by waging war on it through trying to beat down the conflicting emotions. Taming the mind should come about through learning how to understand the conflicting emotions. If we follow the ascetic method of punishing ourselves in order to expiate our “sins,” we will never have the chance to understand our minds properly.