Can a lay person practise Dharma effectively in this contemporary world?
H.E Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche 
13 June 1998 
KKBC Singapore 

Our topic for tonight is “Can a lay person practise Dharma effectively in this contemporary world?” To answer this question, first of all, we have to ask several other questions. Do we have to be a monk or a nun to practice the Dharma? Do we have to do just like what Milarepa did in his practice? Is it compulsory to do 6 years of meditation like what Buddha Shakyamuni did? Or, would it be possible to practise efficiently without making much change in the way we live right now?

To start with, think of the types of clothes that we wear in the winter. Do we still wear the same clothes in the summer? Perhaps this is not a good example as there isn’t any great change in the weather in Singapore, but you know there is a great difference between winter and summer. The Buddha said that we have to adapt to the Dharma according to the place and time. Therefore, we have to understand that Dharma is different from culture or tradition. There is some danger when people confuse culture and tradition with Dharma. Due to such confusion, we may think that the Dharma or the Sangha is not as great as we expect them to be and the disciples may become discouraged. It is very bad for the practitioner to lose such motivation and devotion for Dharma, which he used to have. To lose inspiration towards any of the Three Jewels is a big loss to the practitioner.

This afternoon I was telling some disciples that we should say Buddhism in Tibet, Buddhism in China and Buddhism in India. We should not say Chinese Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism. When you say Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism or Indian Buddhism, you are mixing the culture with the Teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha said that the Dharma is adapted to the culture of different places but Buddhism itself has not changed through such an adaptation. Buddhism is just like before. 

Let’s take an example from the Karma Kagyud Lineage - Naropa was a master in India and his student Marpa, another great master, was from Tibet. Naropa transmitted the Teachings and the knowledge to Marpa but he did not transmit his culture and tradition to him. Naropa did not ask Marpa to wear Indian clothes or act like an Indian. He only wanted him to practice the Dharma and to understand the Truth so as to attain enlightenment. Therefore, Naropa wore like an Indian and Marpa wore like a Tibetan. It must be emphasized that what is transmitted in Dharma should be knowledge and not culture and tradition. Therefore, all Dharma students should know and pay attention to the fact that culture and tradition, and the actual Dharma are two different things. What you should learn is the Dharma. That is why we should say Buddhism in India, Buddhism in China, Buddhism in Tibet or Buddhism in the West.

We have all been practising. To practice effectively, we have to consider wisely on how to fully utilize the limited time that we have. Just like the example I gave earlier of summer and winter and of wearing different clothes, practising during the Buddha’s time or Milarepa’s time is different from practising in today’s context. We still wear clothes regardless of whether it is winter or summer. We wear clothes in winter when it is cold. Likewise, we wear clothes in summer as well, but we don’t have to wear thick clothing in summer.

If you practice in the right way, the time you have right now in your daily life would be sufficient for your Dharma practice, even if the time is comparatively shorter than in the past. However, the quality has to be good. To practise efficiently, we have to balance our practice. There are many kinds of practice but we ought to have a balance. We ought to strike a balance between chanting and meditating. Since we are practising Vajrayana Buddhism, we have to do yidam practice through the saddhana and we have to chant but we must also spend a large amount of time to meditate. That is very important. For example, we must learn the Dharma through questioning, listening to Teachings and reading Dharma books.

The Triple Gems, the Buddha, or the master is the teacher or the one who gives you the correct guidance on how to practise, how to differentiate between what is right to do and what is wrong to do. The teacher is one who shows you the right path. He is not one who gives you the liberation but one who shows you the liberation. However, if you practise in the right way, you are bound to achieve liberation because every sentient being has the Buddha nature, the nature of Buddha or Tathagatagarbha, the essence of the Buddha. Therefore, all of you have the potential to achieve enlightenment. 

We practise the Dharma through two main ways, by accumulating knowledge and understanding the truth and by practising through your actions and deeds. Understanding here means understanding the need to have Dharma, understanding the Dharma as the medicine for our misery and sufferings. There are many things to understand, not just merely understanding the Dharma as medicine for our sickness. 

There are many other things. I often meet people from different places saying that such Dharma is superior to others, or the other way round. It may be true but it may not. The reason why I said that is because how superior it is not the point. Whether it is suitable to you or not is more important. The most suitable is the most helpful and the most helpful is the best and that is the highest Dharma. Therefore, whether it is right practice or the higher practice is based on the individual. This answers many of the earlier questions that we had, such as whether we have to be a monk or a nun to practise the Dharma. 

The right practice is based on the individual’s status. The Buddha said “depending on your age, be a good child, be a good husband or wife, and be a good parent.” Being a monk or a nun is great as you would have more opportunity and more time to practice and to learn the Dharma, but you have to see where you are standing right now. If you have some kind of responsibility towards someone, then the best practice for you is to fulfill your responsibility and practise the Dharma as you are. It doesn’t matter which step you take, but you have to take it in the proper way. You have to clear the mind of all its responsibilities. If you just run away from your responsibility, then it is not the proper way and it is not the right Dharma for you. Therefore, right practice is based on your individual status. 

When should we start to practise the Dharma? The question of time - when to start? Do I have to prepare something? Do I have to do something before I practise the Dharma? The right time is now. You don’t have to change something or prepare anything before you practise the Dharma. You can start where you are right now. Not tomorrow, but today. 

As we practice Dharma, we may make some mistakes. We may break vows or damage vows and we may create bad karma. What do I do? Shall I stop because I broke the vow? This is the next question. If you don’t have the likelihood or danger or risk to create bad karma, then you don’t have to take any vows. So, the possibility of making mistakes is understandable. The main concern should be the ultimate vision or aim. Even if you do make some mistakes, don’t be discouraged; continue to do good deeds because our vision must be positive. If our ultimate vision is positive, it doesn’t matter even if you do make some small mistakes because you are still willing to learn and you are trying your very best. In terms of Dharma practice, our vision should be vast. As long as we have a vast vision in our Dharma practice, then it is fine. It is very important to keep this in our mind. Encourage yourself even if you do make mistakes. Reflect upon how much you have changed from time to time, maybe after a few months or after a year. See how much you have improved over time. 

There are two kinds of mistakes; one is non-virtue or misdeed by itself or by its own nature. The second is when you break a vow. For example, killing is the action that has both kinds of non-virtue. Even if you don’t take the vow of not killing, killing by itself harms other’s life. It causes others to suffer. That is why it is by nature non-virtuous. But if you take the vow of not drinking and if you break it, that will be the second type of bad karma. As taking a vow generates a lot of good karma, it also creates non-virtue if you break it. Therefore, you should refrain from committing these two misdeeds, especially the first kind of non-virtuous actions - the actions that create bad karma by its own nature.

The best practice in Dharma is bodhisattva’s practice. As it is the best practice in Dharma, the worst thing that you could possibly do is to generate strong anger and hatred. It is mentioned by Shantideva, the great master, that the action that creates the worst karma is to generate anger with hatred, as it is against the best action, bodhicitta. Pay special attention to this kind of feeling since anger with hatred creates the worst possible karma. Therefore, it is important to practise loving-kindness and compassion. 

In the Dhammapada, it is said that the wheels of the carriage follow the horse. Similarly, our action follows our mind, just like our shadow follows us. Therefore, mental self-control is very important. Thus, when we practice saddhana, we always take refuge first and we generate bodhicitta for the sake of all sentient beings. What do we do at the end of the practice? We do dedication at the end. We dedicate the merits to all the sentient beings. We do a lot of mind training. This is a kind of mind training. We generate bodhicitta and we make dedication.

There are ten virtuous actions that we should practise in our daily life.
1. Generosity - you should practise generosity according to your own ability.

2. Morality - you should act according to your status. Depending on the role that you play, you should fulfill your responsibility towards your family. For example, be a good child, be a good husband or wife, or be a good parent.

3. Meditation - you need to have some form of spiritual nourishment. All of you have the innate ability to meditate, to let your mind remain in a calm state. It’s just that most of you are not aware that you are actually meditating. If you don’t possess such ability, you might find yourself mentally distraught. However, the ability to remain in such a state of calmness varies from individual to individual. We should try to extend this experience of calmness in our practice of meditation.

4. To pay homage or reverence to the Triple Gems.

5. To be of service to the Triple Gems or anyone who has been kind to you and are important to you, such as your parents. This includes social service to benefit the sentient beings. We should have admiration and respect for the Triple Gems as an object of quality, kindness for our parents and compassion for the needy. We should always remember the Buddha’s kindness and aspire to do the same.

6. Dedication - to dedicate all our merits for the good of all sentient beings. Whatever we do, we should do it for a good purpose.

7. Rejoicing - to practise rejoicing as an antidote to jealousy. You should cultivate the ability to rejoice wholeheartedly in the virtuous actions of yourself and others. You should rejoice in the virtues of others and pray strongly to be able to practise those virtues yourself. Karma is something very individual. What others say or do will not affect your karma unless you react to it. Thus, you should ignore what others say.

8. Listening to Teachings and reading Dharma books. This is one of the three sources of wisdom, and the first step to understand the Truth. In order to do the right meditation, you need to contemplate. To contemplate, you need to listen to Teachings and read Dharma books.

9. Teaching others the right view. You should share with others your knowledge and help them to understand the Truth. You should help others to pacify the anger and hatred in them and help them to be happy.

10. Correcting wrong views. Don’t just ignore if you found that somebody is following a wrong view, for example, when someone says that he wants to quit practising the Dharma. Buddhism is not only for Buddhist, it is for everyone. There are no borders or boundaries that separate people from Buddhism because of their race or sex. Buddhism is for everyone because everyone needs it. Everyone has a certain degree of sufferings. Therefore, Buddhism is much needed.

 The word “Buddhist” is not important, but the message of the Buddha is very important. Therefore, I feel that it is important to read more Dharma books and to listen to more Teachings. Then share your knowledge with others and help them by correcting their wrong views.