Advice to students by
A Dharma talk from Ven Tenzin Palmo
Practice in Daily Life
Meditation Centre, Dharamsala,
What I am
going to talk about this afternoon is something extremely simple, but I
feel, extremely essential. We all have been getting the great blessings of
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s teachings on Gampopa's Jewel Ornament
of Liberation. But the important thing to remember when we receive these
teachings is that it is not just something wonderful. It is all intended
as a guide to how we should lead our lives. Gampopa was, after all, a
disciple of Milarepa, and Milarepa was essentially practical. So
everything which we read in these texts, we have to incorporate into our
I. Pure Buddha Potential
Now, the text Jewel Ornament of Liberation begins with the glorious proclamation that we all possess the potential for Buddhahood; we have it right now. It is not even something we have to strive to achieve. We do not ‘achieve’ Buddhahood; we rediscover what we already have. It is like the sky: the sky is always there, all pervading, perfectly clear and perfectly pure. And however dark the clouds may be, however heavy the thunder and the lightning, never for even one moment is the sky contaminated. We have to begin with that fundamental understanding that we are from the very beginning totally pure, and we can never be contaminated. All we need is to uncover the layers and layers of delusions and the dust of all our negative emotions. That is all. We do not have to build up something, we just have to uncover.
order to uncover this, we have [to clear] this whole mountain of garbage.
One of the big problems of modern day is that, while we are trying to take
a little teaspoon to take away the garbage, at the same time, because of
our present day environment, more garbage is flooding in through all our
senses – through what we read, hear, see and talk about. So at the very
beginning, we have to remember to try to be discriminating: discriminating
in what we read, in the kind of movies or television we watch, in the kind
of company we keep. Not to make more garbage, and as much as possible, to
concentrate on clearing out, instead of loading in, more and
So we have this pure Buddha potential. Because we have this pure Buddha potential, something very deep inside us is calling us home. Sometimes because the outer surface is so noisy, we do not hear this, but there is something inside us which knows. This is the knowing quality of the mind. It is not something out there in the distance. Maybe if I talk about the sky, it sounds like something up there, but the sky is here, it is right here. So when we talk about the sky-like quality of the mind, we do not mean something up there. We have it, right here and now. The very fact that you can hear me and understand, that you know what is happening and that you are here, aware of what is happening – that is it. But we do not recognise that we already have it, and so we go for all these endless practices and meditations and studies, and take all these vows. We do all these things just because we do not recognise what is closer to us than our own eyes.
whole question of enlightenment is a tricky one, because on the one hand,
the text goes through all the levels of a bodhisattva and the path, and it
is something way out there, way out on the moon. And then we think, ‘How
can an ignorant, stupid person like me ever attain this? Two thousand five
hundred years ago the Buddha made it, but ME? I am such a stupid, ignorant
person. I am full of anger, full of greed, I do not like getting up early;
I like to hang out with my friends; I read all the wrong books and the
right books send me to sleep.’ Does this sound familiar? So then we
In my community, we have these yogis [called togdens] who, in Tibet, lived in caves. They are monks but they have this kind of dread locks and they wear white skirts, and they are very, very special. One time, one of them was giving me an oral transmission of a Nyingma text on Dzogchen, or the Great Perfection, when he stopped and said, ‘You know, the problem with texts like this is that they make it all sound very distant, very high, very special, but it is so ordinary, and it is right here’. And I thought, ‘Yeah, it is for YOU.’ But it is true: it is nearer to us than our own breath. We just have to recognise it, and then having recognised it in a flash [snaps her fingers], we have to learn how to make those flashes more [frequent], and lengthen them. And when all those little flashes are so frequent and so elongated that they are continual, we are Buddha.
|II. Using our Daily
Life as Practice
What I want to talk about is not just that, but this question of how to use our daily life as our practice. I am going to base this on the Six Perfections. These Six Perfections which are dealt with in The Jewel Ornament are: 1) giving or generosity, 2) ethics or moral conduct, 3) patience or forbearance, 4) effort, diligence, perseverance that keep going, not giving up, 5) meditation or concentration and 6) wisdom. When people think about Buddhism, they think, ‘Ah, meditation’, but meditation is just one, and we need all six of these paramitas (perfections) in order to attain Buddhahood. For the practice of the other five such as giving, ethical conduct and patience, we need other people. It is very easy to live in a cave and scatter around a bit of bread for the birds, and think you are being generous. Or it is snowing again and one puts up with that, and that is patience. As for ethical conduct, what can you do while stuck in a cave! Yet your mind can do all sorts of things. Our everyday life, if we understand it right, is a perfect arena for our practice. Every breath we take, if we take it with awareness, is a Dharma practice. Sometimes the way that the Dharma is presented, especially in the Tibetan context, it is as if the teacher is talking to an audience of monks and nuns and hermits, and so people end up feeling tremendously frustrated, and sometimes even resentful towards the family, the children, their jobs, their social life, everything. They come to Dharamsala and they think they are in a pure realm and then they have to go back to samsara. But we can transform samsara into a pure land. Samsara will not change itself to please us. We can transform our own attitude and turn that into a pure land.
One time I was living at my community called Tashi Jong, which is about two hours down the road from here. It comprises a monastery of about 100 monks, and 400 lay people who live in a very tightly packed little village, which looks like a concentration camp. I normally live on the hill above it, but at this time I was down living with the lay people. That was the only place there was and I was complaining to this yogi, one of our togdens, that it is so noisy, it is so this, it is so that. For me it was a kind of hell realm – what was I doing there? And he said, ‘Yeah, so you want to be on the hill, don’t you? You want to be where it is nice and quiet and you’ll feel very good and you will be able to practise and that’s wonderful. What are you that you cannot be with these people and keep your mind? Why do you always need to be away? Where is your awareness?’ I thought while he was talking that he was really scolding, he was saying worse than that, he was really hitting very hard. But as he did so, I don’t know, but my whole mind turned right around, and I went back and it was like a pure realm. I was so happy being there, I lived there for a year. I was completely happy. There were no problems. There were no toilets, no water; you were just scrunched in the middle, one room, with people, children, dogs all around you. There were no doors or windows at that time. They were building and cows were wandering in – [still], no problem; it was a pure realm. Nothing had changed. My mind had changed.
So what we
are dealing with is how to change our attitude so that when we go back to
our own countries, to our jobs and to our families, we see them as a
wonderful opportunity to really enhance our bodhisattva path. The
bodhisattva path is based on loving kindness and compassion, it is not
just a word. One of the problems of Buddhism sometimes is that we come to
it through reading books and listening to teachings, and so it is up in
our heads. Pretty soon, we learn all the jargon, we learn all the
terminology, all the stages and we get ever so clever. But nothing is
happening here in our hearts. Even our meditations and our visualisations,
even though they are very detailed and in glorious technicolor, they are
up here in our heads. Then the years go by and nothing fundamentally
changes. This is a big danger. We can look 10 years on, 20 years on, 30
years on, and think: ‘Am I even a better person? Let alone having
realisations, am I nicer?’ And sometimes, if we are truthful, the answer
point is to bring the Dharma down from our heads. We need to have Dharma
in our heads: we have to know what is Dharma and what is not Dharma. I am
not saying ‘don’t study, don’t listen to talks’. Absolutely, we have to
know. We do not come from a Buddhist country; this is not natural to us.
We come from other cultures, other backgrounds. We have to know what is
Dharma, what is not Dharma, definitely. But then, we have to take that
knowledge and eat it. We have to eat it and we have to digest it, and it
has to go through every cell of our body and nourish us. Otherwise, we are
only going to end up with indigestion. Believe me, I am speaking from the
heart here. I see this over and over again: I see it in myself, not just
out there – me. We have to bring it into the heart and change our hearts.
Our heart has to open to include all beings. That is what being a
bodhisattva is about. We have to open it up. It is like a physical
feeling: you can feel the muscles stretching and resisting to
Now, the Six Perfections are intended to help us to open up. Buddhism is not sentimental at all even though it talks a lot about compassion. It is a compassion which is extremely precise, extremely seeing, extremely appropriate. So these qualities which we are trying to develop in the Six Perfections are also very precise qualities which we need, and which can help ourselves and others. Each one of them is something which we can take into our daily life, into our family life, into our workplace, into our social life. To be generous, not just with money, not just with material goods, but with our time as well. Listening to people when they are in sorrow. Being there for people, when we would rather be doing something else.
a very beautiful quality. The Buddha put it at the beginning, because it
is something everyone can do. It does not matter if you are very greedy or
very angry or very jealous or extremely deluded. It is a very good thing
when we meet anyone, whoever comes in front of our field of vision, to
have as our initial thought, even if it is not a thought but a feeling –
may you be happy, may you be free of suffering. You do not say it. But
that feeling is there, that feeling of opening to that person whoever he
is. That is also giving. It is so obvious, isn’t it? It has been said not
just by Jesus and the Buddha, but by many great masters, that we should
treat others as we would wish them to treat us – that is all it is. We do
not like it when people are not nice to us, when people cheat us, when
Since I left the cave, I have spent a lot of time with various couples. Up to that time I had not spent much time with couples. My father died when I was two years old, so I was brought up in a household where there was just my mother, my brother and myself – that worked out fine, no problems. But after I left India, I found myself living with couples and sometimes, with whole families. It was quite a revelation, I must say. I was very glad I had become a nun! Occasionally you met a couple who really helped each other, and it was a very inspiring relationship in which they developed many very good qualities. But with so many couples, you think ‘My god, what are they doing? They are tearing each other apart!’ And if you asked them if they loved each other, they would say ‘Oh yes. Well, yes’. But they spoke to each other in ways that you would not use with your worst enemy. Sometimes I would think, one should put a tape recorder there or, even better, a video camera and later on just play it back to them so that they could hear themselves, see themselves. And so you have to ask yourself, ‘Well you are in this situation: this is your partner; it is your choice.’ Often these two people were actually really nice people, apart. You talk to the woman and she is absolutely lovely, your best friend. You talk to the guy and he is wonderful. But you put them together... And these were often very sincere practitioners. And then what does it do for the children?
So we have to start where we are, no fantasies here. We are who we are, where we are with our friends and relationships, with the work we have, with the body we have, with the personality we have, because we created these. So we take responsibility and we say, ‘Okay, now where do I go from here? Using the person I am, in the situation I am, with the relationships I have at this moment. How can I use all these to benefit both myself and others and to really make genuine progress on the spiritual path?’ So we start with our partners. If we cannot show loving kindness to them, then to whom? If we cannot show loving kindness to our children, then to whom? Our children are never obstacles on the spiritual path – they are the opportunity. With our children and our partners we learn generosity, ethical conduct, patience and effort because it is relentless. We can learn how to be equanimous under the most difficult situations, which is meditation. And we can learn understanding which is wisdom. In our very homes we have the perfect Dharma practice. Where better, if we use it rightly? And when we go to work it is not that we have to carry badges showing we are card-carrying Buddhists. We do not even have to talk about the Dharma.
I was in England in 1973 – I had not been back to England for about 10 years, so I went back to see my mother. When I had to go back to India and people offered to pay my fare, I thought it was not right to accept it because I had not done anything in England, I was just visiting my mother, relations and friends. I had not done any Dharma activities, so it did not seem right to accept the charity of others. So I said no, I will earn the money myself.
So I went along in my robes to the Department of Employment and said, ‘I want a job’. And they looked at my resume and they said, ‘Where have you been for the last 10 years?’ and I said ‘Well, I’ve been in India. I was working with Tibetan refugees.’ So then they talked to me for a few minutes and they said, ‘Why don’t you come and work for us?’ So within about three days, I found myself working for the Department of Employment, in my robes, and I did not tell them I was a Buddhist nun.
But as the weeks went by and I always turned up in the same clothes, eventually someone said, ‘I thought Buddhist monks and nuns wore yellow?’ So I lifted up my outer robe and I had a yellow petticoat on and I said, ‘Well, sometimes secretly’. The point is I did not talk about Buddhism at all obviously. But people began to come to me and to say, ‘Don’t Buddhists believe in reincarnation?’ and I would say, ‘Yes, we do’, and they said, ‘Could we talk about it?’ And before I knew it, I was just talking with this guy and then somebody else would come over and the whole office would be listening to this talk on karma and rebirth. And [it went] like this, again and again. If there were any disputes in the office, they got me to arbitrate. Buddhists are not interested in converting anybody; I certainly was not interested in converting the people in my office. But our way of acting, [whatever] equanimity, patience and qualities we can bring up and our, at least, trying to be nice to people, can be of influence.
Our whole office atmosphere completely changed. When I left, the whole office came to me with tears in their eyes and said, ‘Don’t leave us’. Not because of me, but because anyone who brings just a slight taste of trying to be a nice person can have an enormous effect on people. We do not realise what effect we do have on the people around us. One person who is difficult and harsh and a troublemaker can split whole groups. We all know this, we just need one person like that and there is discord all around. And likewise, one person who has something to offer in the other direction – of being a peace-maker, of being friendly and honest, of not endlessly gossiping and backbiting, just a person who has a little equanimity in the midst of all the stress – can be terribly helpful for other people. We really do not appreciate what an effect we have and what an effect our words have.
one lama who said, ‘I really wish that we all had locks on our mouths and
threw away the keys, because we cause so much harm through our mouths.’ I
sometimes really think, ‘May I never say anything about anyone that I
would not be happy for him to be sitting in front of me [while I say it]’.
These are simple things but they affect us in our family, in our
workplace, in our social life.
III. Being Present
One other thing which is very important to take into our everyday life is the quality of awareness. It is crucial that we try, all of us, to develop this quality of being present. Normally, when we are doing anything, whether it is something pleasant or something unpleasant, our minds are bubbling with a thousand thoughts: ‘I like it, I don’t like it. It’s not as good as the one I had last week.’ I drink this and I am thinking, ‘Well, after this, I have to go and do this, and then this afternoon we’ve got this, and then this evening we’re going to do that.’ And so while I am drinking, I am thinking about what I am going to say next; then when I am talking, I am thinking about something else. We do this continually, we almost never are just with what we are doing, in the moment, without commentary. Think about it. This evening or tomorrow morning, brush your teeth and just brush your teeth! I challenge you. See how long you last just being conscious of brushing your teeth with no other thoughts or other ideas such as ‘This is really dumb’ coming into your mind, or ‘Oh, this is easy. I can easily brush my teeth, what’s she talking about? It’s easy to be in the moment.’ In that case you are not in the moment at all, you are just thinking about being in the moment, right?
In all Buddhist traditions, in the Christian, Sufi, Hindu or in any genuine spiritual tradition, this quality of presence is emphasised. In Christianity it is called recollection. The enemy of remembering is that we forget. There is nothing to stop us being present in this moment, except that we forget to be present. Buddhism is about waking up: ‘Buddha’ means to wake up from the sleep of ignorance. So understand this much: you are all asleep, we are all fast asleep, we are so fast asleep, we are snoring. We think we are awake but we are not awake; we are dormant. You push a button and you get a reaction.
I use ‘presence’ because it is this idea of being here, of knowing in the moment what is happening outside and inside, right now, without any mental chatter. It is quite difficult, it lasts for a very short time. Then we start saying, ‘Oh, now I’m really conscious, now I’m really aware.’ But in that moment, we have lost it because we are just thinking about being mindful; we are not being mindful. Bring this quality as much as possible into the day to start trying to wake ourselves up. You can be doing anything during the day; every moment is a practice. If we wake ourselves up in this moment, ‘Where are we?’ ‘Well, I am sitting here.’ I can feel it as I say this. But the minute I say, ‘I am sitting here’, suddenly, I am conscious of my body and I am conscious of looking at you.
Normally, when we hear and see and smell and touch and taste, we are lost in that. We are not conscious that we are seeing and touching and tasting. It is like our senses stream out and our sense contacts stream in. To remain poised in that moment, and to just know it as it is, this we can do during the day as often as we remember. Just in that moment, just for a moment to wake up. You are sitting at your computer, you are waiting for the screen to change, in that moment just know that you are sitting there waiting for the screen to change. In Delhi, [looking] at the traffic lights, right in that moment, instead of going ‘agrrrr’! [there is] a perfect opportunity to bring ourselves back into ourselves to be present. So we are grateful to the traffic lights.
This is an immense subject and there are many books and many teachers who can teach you. But what I am trying to convey is that there are many methods which we can use. Of course, it is wonderful if you can go on retreats, I am not saying that solid practice is not also wonderful, but if we do not have the opportunity for that, all is not lost. We can use everything we do, every breath we take as a practice and it is not something that is ever so difficult, that only people who have been practising for years and years can do. We can all do it, we can all start from where we are: examine our situation and our relationships and our opportunities and start from there.
Read these Dharma books as an aid, as guide books, not as an intellectual exercise. They say to be giving, okay, let me exercise that, let me try to be generous. Whenever the opportunity comes, give little things, give your time, give a smile, give a friendly thought. Ethical conduct – let us get our lives together, let us not do anything that could possibly harm any other being. The Buddhist ethics are based on non-harming – obviously not hurting physically, but also not taking anything which is not ours. If someone lends us something, then take care of it very carefully, giving it back to him in an immaculate state, and give it back – including books! Okay? Not lying, not deceiving, being honest, using speech which is helpful and which makes people feel good. Not saying something, even if it is truthful, if it is going to hurt them, if it does not help them. Using our sexual relationships in a way that is nurturing and helpful and is never going to harm anyone, does not harm ourselves, does not harm anyone else. Being responsible for our sexual relationships and the consequences. Not just being caught up in the passion of the moment and not just flowing with the current views, but being really responsible people and using everything we do in a responsible way. And [with] alcohol and drugs too. Why would the Buddha speak against these? Because they lower the mind. When people are drunk, are they attractive? Does it bring out all the best qualities in us? Our loving kindness, our wisdom? Some people get drunk and they beat up their wives, what is the point? They think they are being very brilliant but anyone who is sober knows they’re idiots. [Alcohol] lowers us, it brings out the animal in us. It does not enhance that quality of mind which is specifically human and very precious, the part of us that we have to nurture.
So we can use precepts always in our lives: not harming anyone, and then where possible, helping. We can all do this wherever we are, whatever situation we are in, we can do this much. And then not just doing this but to really open up our hearts. Then also finding a meditation practice and being regular with it, even if it is just a short time. Just do it, and then integrate that into our daily life through trying to be conscious, through trying to be aware. Listening to ourselves when we are speaking, not just going blah blah blah. Hearing ourselves, being conscious of what our body is doing, how we are sitting. Because how we are sitting indicates what our mind is doing. How we use our body, using our body skilfully, using our speech skilfully, using our mind skilfully. Knowing what is in our mind. If there are negative thoughts in the mind, knowing that. If there are positive thoughts in the mind, knowing that. This is a huge subject, I am just skimming the surface. But just to give you the idea that absolutely how you are right now – this is it. And whatever situation you are in right now, that is where you are and that is your opportunity. There is no other option, this is it.
So all of you can go out, and from this very moment use everything, everything you have got, even your breath. Using your breath as a focus for the awareness, and everything as a practice and an aid on the spiritual path will benefit not only yourself, and you will really transform. If you only spend an hour a day doing meditation, and the rest of the day your mind is just a blur, nothing will ever change. Then in a few years’ time you will say, ‘Oh the Dharma doesn’t work, that’s really stupid’ and give up. But it is not the fault of the Dharma. It is the fault of our lack of application. But if we really take everything and use everything as a Dharma practice, every single person we meet, every word we speak, every breath we take, if we are really trying, that can be a Dharma practice for us. Then quickly, quickly things change. And then our whole life becomes a Dharma practice, there is no division.