MANDALA  Buddhism in Our Time
Tuning the mind to make a sweet melody
Ven Tenzin Palmo Ven. Tenzin Palmo, subject of Vicki Mackenzie's book Cave in the Snow, which tells Ven. Palmo's life story and of her twelve years in solitary retreat, met with participants in Tushita Dharamsala's Lam-Rim retreat and other Dharma practitioners at Tashi Jong Monastery outside of Dharamsala, North India last year. An edited version of her conversation with them follows.

I hope you realize how enormously privileged you are and what incredible karma you must have made in the past to have this opportunity to receive these Lam-rim teachings in this lifetime. Some people, after taking a Lam-rim course, end up feeling like - whoa! The hell realms loom before you whatever you do! But it's not like that. You are enormously fortunate to have not just the opportunity to practice Dharma, but the aspiration to do it. If you don't have an aspiration, then even if the Dharma is right in front of you, you don't reach out for it.

In Tibet, the people's minds basically were also quite empty, like their outside environment, so they filled it up with lots of systems and levels and complicated visualizations, complicated philosophies, because they had lots of empty space inside. If you consider Tibet, which is vast, enormous and full of empty space, you can see why, when you look at their thangkas, there is no space! Every inch is covered with something. Because they were dealing with that vast space out there, when it came to their practice, they had to fill it up as much as possible.

But Westerners, especially Westerners who come to Dharma, their skulls are very fragile. They're often filled with self-loathing and guilt. If you hit them with a cudgel, all you get is shattered skull and bones and blood and brains all over the place. So they end up feeling, "I'm so unworthy, I'm so awful." They end up with this extremely heavy sense of inability.

Westerners come to the Dharma with minds that are already chock-full, mostly with garbage, and when we try to plant our little seeds of the Dharma on top of that, they will have trouble surviving. It makes more sense to start by clearing it out. In other words, if you've got a house full of junk that's never been cleaned, and you bring in all your fancy thangkas and Buddha images with brocades and you try to hang them over all the junk, it's only going to look like even more of a junk pile. The first thing we need is a house cleaning - we need to clean and scour, and then we can put up our thangkas and images.

People start all these extremely complicated practices, they take initiations and commitments, and then instead of the Dharma being a light in their minds, it becomes more of a burden, like you're trudging up a hill with this great big rucksack full of rocks. Look at the genuine Tibetan practitioners - they're really happy about the whole thing. It's not that they don't believe in the hell realms and things like that, but it doesn't really worry them too much. They know that if they're sincere in their practice, they have nothing to worry about and they take refuge in the Triple Gem. But for many Western people it does become heavy and it makes us very artificial.

The important thing is to have a meaningful practice which you enjoy doing. People have two or three hours of practice everyday, and then they have their families and their jobs and their social lives, so their practice becomes this heavy burden which they have to get through. They rush through it to finish their commitment so they won't go to hell. That's not the point!

The Dharma is supposed to transform our mind and to give us joy and clarity and the ability to benefit others. So we have to see which practices we can do which are helpful for us, especially in our everyday lives. If you do your practice with a mind that is one-pointed, a mind which is very relaxed and spacious but at the same time very concentrated and merged with the practice, then however long the practice is, at the end of it, your mind feels like it's all washed clean.

This article can be read in its entirety in MANDALA