An excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called Coming Alive
I would like to talk about innocence in one’s practice–not in a traditional way but from direct experience. This is not a new theme. Other religions have spoken of it each in their own way. For example, in Christianity there are statements about “entering the kingdom of heaven like a child.” There are many different interpretations about what that phrase means. I would imagine that, depending on the branch of Christianity one practiced, the church one attended and the minister or preacher one went to hear, one would probably get a slightly different interpretation. I would like to talk about the topic from a Dharma point of view, because the need to remain innocent and childlike in one’s approach to the spiritual path is fairly universal.
Think back to the first moment you met with Dharma and what impressed you about it. Was it the unique look of a Dharma center, compared to other American institutions? Our altars are different. Our colors are different. Our books are different. Our uniforms are different. Dharma practitioners are different; and according to mainstream American culture, we are unusual. So when you first met with Dharma, you probably had some awareness of the difference, of the exotic feeling. If you had been exposed to this kind of thing before or if you have some particularly strong karmic relationship with the path, you might have had an immediate feeling of connection. You might have felt, “Oh this is more like what I understand than the stuff you usually see in America.” Although some people have felt like that, there was still some reaction to the exoticism or uniqueness of Dharma.
Then you might have heard some of the ideas of Dharma, and you might have become excited. Often people feel uplifted when they first hear that by practicing Dharma one can achieve realization within one lifetime or immediately upon death. Vajrayana Buddhism has the capacity to offer this great result, and this is unique and tremendous, particularly considering that we live in the time of Kaliyuga or degeneration–the time when it is very difficult to practice Dharma purely and when karma ripens very quickly. The result of one’s actions, perhaps even from the very distant past, are often ripening now; and there is a great deal of confusion, as you know. If you don’t know that, all you have to do is read the newspaper once in a while. Confusion is rampant in every way, shape, manner and form.
What happens when one is really impressed with a new idea and a new opportunity? An assumption that one might make upon meeting something that is sweeping, dramatic and profound and has been shown to offer this tremendous unmatched result is to think, “Oh this is something very precious. This is something that I must take note of! This is something that I have to regard very highly. I’ve got to pay attention here.”
Most people recognize–I’m sure you’ve had this thought–that many things in life seem cyclical. They come up again and again, habitually. Many issues in life seem unsolvable. It seems as though there are many ways in which we simply go round and round and round. So when we hear about something that can make a dent in that cycle or end that strong habitual tendency or re-occurring compulsive phenomenon, we become excited. If we were to go to psychotherapy at a very difficult time in our life, we might think, “Oh, this is an opportunity.”
When we first come to Dharma, we label our Dharma experience as being an extraordinary opportunity. This is the time of great innocence. When we receive teachings, we look at what’s being offered, and we really hear it. We follow the logic of it, and the logic is new and fresh. If the teacher is a good teacher, that new, fresh logic will be presented over and over again in many different ways and forms until there is some confidence that the logic has been heard and followed.
When we first come to Dharma, we can really follow the Buddha’s teachings. At that time we’re really up for them. We hear that all sentient beings are suffering and other foundational thoughts. These are the thoughts that turn the mind towards Dharma, and these are the original teachings of Lord Buddha. So we think, “Oh this is really something! All sentient beings are suffering. We are all suffering from desire.” Well, that’s new information. We didn’t really understand that before. We just knew that we were suffering. It almost seemed as if we were afflicted with a disease that was eating us up, and we didn’t know where it was coming from. So we hear the news that it’s all really based on ego-clinging or desire.
Then we hear the good news that there is an end to suffering. Now who would have thought of that? We are so accustomed to suffering. It’s like being born on a merry-go-round. Because we’ve always been going round and round all our lives, we wouldn’t know what else to do. How we have suffered is characteristic of our personalities, it’s the way we determine who we are. So a sense of wonder comes up. At first we can’t take in the idea that there is an end to suffering. We wonder what it means.
Then the Buddha goes on to say, “And that cessation of suffering is called enlightenment.” He then outlines the method of the eightfold path. In Vajrayana that path is condensed into two accumulations, that of wisdom and compassion or Bodhicitta. Wisdom is the realization or awakening to the primordial empty state, and Bodhicitta or compassion is the understanding of our nature as being fundamentally compassion. This is a new thought.
When we first meet with this series of new thoughts, the sense of wonder is enormous. Unfortunately, what happens later on is that we never really hear it again, and that’s a problem. It’s the biggest problem that we have. I don’t know how many times I have marveled at the difference between old-time Dharma practitioners, who are no longer hearing these fundamental teachings that are so precious and essential in order to build anything further, and new practitioners, who are shocked to hear about suffering and that there is something they can do to end it. The new practitioners may only know one mantra like Om Mani Padme Hung or the Seven Line Prayer, but they have understood that the mantra or prayer is very powerful, potent and remarkable, and their level of practice is unbelievable.
© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo