Practicing Buddhism in Daily
by Venerable Thubten
Spiritual Life and Daily Life
Many people have the misconception that
spiritual life or religious life is somewhere up there in the sky --
an ethereal or mystical reality -- and that our everyday life is too
mundane and not so nice. Often people think that to be a spiritual
person, we must ignore or neglect our everyday life, and go into
another, special realm. Actually, I think being a spiritual person
means becoming a real human being. Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known
Vietnamese monk, said, "It is not so
important whether you walk on water or walk in space. The true
miracle is to walk on earth." It's
true. In other words, becoming a kind human being is probably the
greatest miracle we can perform.
One time I gave a talk in a Hong Kong
school to a group of children. One
child asked, "Can you bend spoons with your mind?" Another asked, "Has God ever talked to you?" They
were very disappointed when I said, "No." I went on to explain that
for me a real true miracle is becoming a kind human being. If you
have psychic powers but lack a kind heart, the powers are of no use.
In fact, they could even be disadvantageous: people may get very
upset if they find all their spoons have been bent!
Upon Waking Up
How do we cultivate a kind heart? It is
not enough to tell ourselves that we should be nice, because telling
ourselves what we should or should not be, feel, or do doesn't make
us become that way. Filling ourselves
with "shoulds" often just makes us feel guilty because we never are
what we think we should be. We need to know how to actually
transform our mind. In other words, we must realize the disadvantages
of being self-centered. We must truly want to develop a kind heart,
not just keep thinking that we should develop a kind heart. In the
morning, when we first wake up, before getting out of bed, before
thinking about what we will eat for breakfast or which obnoxious
jerk we will see at the office, we can start the day by thinking,
"Today as much as possible, I won't harm anybody. Today as much as
possible I am going to try be of service and benefit to others.
Today I want to do all actions so that all living beings can attain
the long-term happiness of enlightenment."
Setting a positive motivation the first thing in
the morning is very beneficial. When we first wake up, our mind is
very subtle and delicate. If we set a strong positive motivation at
this time, there is a greater chance of it staying with us and
influencing us throughout the day. After generating our positive
motivation, we get out of bed, wash, maybe have a cup of tea, and
then meditate or recite prayers. By starting the day in this way, we
get in touch with ourselves and become our own friend by treasuring
and re-enforcing our good qualities.
Finding Time to Meditate Each Day
Sometimes it is difficult to find time to
meditate each day. But we always have
time to watch TV. We always have time to go shopping. We always have
time to get a snack from the refrigerator. Why is it that the 24
hours run out when it is time to meditate? When we understand the
value and effect of spiritual practice, then it will become a high
priority in our life, and when something is very important, we find
time for it. In this way, try to set
up a daily meditation practice of maybe 15 or 30 minutes in the
morning. To do that, we might have to experience the "incredible
sacrifice" of giving up 15 or 30 minutes of television the previous
evening so we can go to bed a little earlier. In the same way that
we always find time to eat because food nourishes our body, we will
find time to meditate and recite some prayers because it nourishes
us spiritually. When we respect ourselves spiritually, we respect
ourselves as human beings. Nourishing ourselves in that way then
becomes a very important priority.
In the morning, it is good to begin your
meditation session with a few prayers and cultivate the altruistic
intention to benefit others by doing the meditation. Then do the
breathing meditation for a while. Sit calmly, experience your breath
going in and out, and be aware of the breath nourishing you. Just be
in the present moment with the breath, and let all the discursive
thoughts and worries subside. You may want to chant Kuan Yin's
(Avalokiteshvara's) mantra or that of the Buddha. It is helpful to
remember the Buddha's qualities at this time for it inspires us to
emulate the Buddha's kindness, wisdom and skill in our daily
activities. Or you may do an analytic meditation, thinking about the
meaning of a particular teaching the Buddha gave and applying it to
your own life. This also steers your energy in a very positive
direction first thing in the morning.
Some people say, "I have children. How can I meditate or say prayers
in the morning when they need my attention?" One way is to get up earlier than your children.
Another idea is to invite your children to meditate or chant with
you. One time I was staying with my brother's family. My niece, who
was about six or seven at that time, used to come into my room
because we were the first two to wake up in the morning. As I was
reciting prayers or meditating, I explained to her that this is a
time when I am quiet and do not want to be disturbed. She would come
in and sometimes she would draw. Other times, she would sit in my
lap. Several times she asked me to sing to her, and I would chant
prayers and mantras out loud. She really liked this and did not
disturb me at all.
It is very good for children to see their
parents sit still and be calm. That gives them the idea that maybe
they too can do the same. If Mom and
Dad are always busy, running around, talking on the phone, stressed
out, or collapsed in front of the TV, the kids will also be like
this. Is this what you want for your children? If you want your
children to learn certain attitudes or behaviors, you have to
cultivate them yourselves. Otherwise, how will your children learn?
If you care about your children, you have to care about yourselves
as well and be mindful of living a healthy and balanced life for
their benefit as well as for your own.
You can also teach your children how to
make offerings to the Buddha and how to recite simple prayers and
mantras. Once, I stayed with a friend and her three-year-old
daughter. Every morning when we got up, we would all bow three times
to the Buddha. Then, the little girl
would give the Buddha a present -- a cookie or some fruit -- and the
Buddha would give her a present also, a sweet or a
cracker. It was very nice for the
child, because at age three she was establishing a good relationship
with the Buddha and at the same time was learning to be generous and
share things. When my friend cleaned the house, did chores or went
places with her daughter, they would chant mantras together. The
little girl loved the melodies of the mantras. This helped her
because whenever she got upset or frightened, she knew she could
chant mantras to calm herself down.
Practicing Dharma at the Workplace
Let's return to your daily practice. After
your morning meditation, have breakfast and set off for work. How
are you going to practice Dharma at work? First, try to remember the
kind heart and the motivation you cultivated in the morning.
Throughout the day, continually remind yourself that you don't want
to harm anybody, that you want to be of service to them, and that
you seek to do all actions for the ultimate enlightenment of
yourself and others. To remind yourself
of this, you can use a frequent event as a trigger to call you back
to your motivation. For example, every
time you stop at a red light, instead of being irritated and
thinking, "Why is this red light so long? I'm late for work!" think,
"Today, I want to have a kind heart towards others." Thus the red
light becomes an opportunity to remember the kind heart. When the
telephone rings, instead of rushing to pick it up, first think, "May
I be of service to whomever is on the line." Then answer the phone.
Every time your pager goes off, calmly come back to the kind heart,
then respond to the call. A friend told me that her trigger to come
back to the kind heart was her children calling, "Mommy! Mommy!"
Since this happened frequently throughout the day, she became
familiar with the kind heart and also was much more patient with her
Throughout the day, try to be aware of
what you are thinking, feeling, saying, and doing, instead
of living on "automatic." When we live on automatic, we go through life
reacting to things but never really experiencing what life is about.
This is why we feel out of touch with ourselves, like strangers to
ourselves. For example, you get in the car and drive to work. When
you got to work, if somebody asked you, "What did you think about
during the half hour you were driving?" you probably wouldn't know.
We are unaware of what is going on inside us. Yet a lot is going on
and this influences how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to
The antidote to living on automatic is to
cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being aware of what we are
thinking, feeling, saying, and doing each moment. It also means
being mindful of our ethical values and of the kind heart, so that
we can live according to them in our daily lives. By cultivating this awareness, we will no longer be
spaced out, just reacting to things, and then wondering why we are
so confused and exhausted at the end of the day. If we are mindful, we will notice that we have a
kind heart and will enrich it and let our actions flow from it. Or,
we might become aware that we are upset, irritated, angry, or are on
the verge of scolding somebody. If we realize that, we can come back
to our breath, come back to our kind heart, instead of throwing our
negative energy out in the world.
Being Mindful of Living in an Interdependent
We also become more mindful of how we
interact with our environment. We
realize that we live in an interdependent world, and if we pollute
our environment, we are affecting ourselves, our children, and other
living beings. Because we are mindful
of being kind, we will curtail the ways in which we pollute the
environment. We will carpool when going to work or school, instead
of using up gasoline in a car by ourselves. We will recycle the
things we use: paper, cans, plastic containers, bottles, glass jars,
and newspapers. We know that if we throw these away in the garbage,
we are destroying our planet and are affecting other beings in a
negative way. Thus, we will re-use our plastic bags and paper bags
when we go to the supermarket. In addition, we will not leave our
air-conditioners or heaters on when we are not home, and will not
use products, such as styrofoam whose production releases many
pollutants into the air.
I think that if the Buddha were alive
today, he would establish vows that said we have to recycle and stop
wasting resources. Many of our
monastic vows arose because lay people complained to the Buddha
about what monks or nuns did. Each time this happened, the Buddha
would establish a precept in order to curb the detrimental behavior.
If the Buddha were alive today, people would complain to him, "So
many Buddhists throw out their tin cans, glass jars, and newspaper!
They use disposable cups, chopsticks and plates, which not only make
more garbage but also cause the destruction of many trees. They do
not seem to care about the environment and the living beings in it!"
I would feel pretty embarrassed if I was doing that and someone
complained to the Buddha about my behavior, wouldn't you? That's why
I think the Buddha would definitely set down vows saying that we
have to recycle and to curtail consumption.
Being Mindful of Our Actions
Mindfulness also enables us to be aware if we
are about to act destructively as we go through the day. Mindfulness
says, "Uh oh! I'm getting angry," or "I'm being greedy," or "I'm
feeling jealous." Then we can apply the various antidotes the Buddha
taught to help us calm our minds. For example, if we discover we are
annoyed and anger is arising, we can stop and look at the situation
from the other person's point of view. When we do this, we recognize
they want to be happy, and because they aren't happy, they are doing
that action we find objectionable. Then instead of harming them out
of anger, we will be more compassionate and understanding, and will
work with them to negotiate an agreement.
But how do we do this when a quarrel is
just about to start or we're already in the middle of one? We have
to practice beforehand, in our meditation practice. In the heat of
the situation, it is difficult to remember what the Buddha taught if
we haven't practiced it already when we were calm and
peaceful. In the same way that a football team practices on a
regular basis, we need to meditate on patience and to recite prayers
daily to get well-trained. Then when we encounter a situation in
daily life, we will be able to use the teachings.
Offering Our Food
Another practice to increase our mindfulness and
help us remember our motivation is offering our food before we eat.
We imagine the food to be blissful wisdom nectar -- something very
delicious that increases our bliss and wisdom, not our attachment,
when we eat. Then we imagine a small Buddha made of light at our
heart. When we eat, we offer this nectar to the Buddha at our heart.
The Buddha radiates light that fills us up. To do this, you don't
need to sit in perfect meditation position in the middle of a
restaurant! You can visualize and contemplate in this way while
waiting for the food. While your companions or business associates
continue to chat, you can do this visualization and offer your food
to the Buddha without anyone knowing. Sometimes, for example, when
you're at home with your family, you can pause and focus on offering
your food. It's very nice for a family to recite together a prayer
offering their food. I stayed with one family and their six-year-old
son led us in reciting the prayer. It was very touching.
When you eat, eat mindfully. Be aware of
the effort other people put into growing, transporting, and
preparing the food. Realize your
interdependence with other living beings and how much benefit you
have received from them, such as the food we eat. If we reflect in
this way before we eat, we will feel very happy and grateful when we
eat, and we will eat more mindfully too. And if we eat mindfully, we
won't overeat, and then we won't have to spend so much money on
special diets to lose weight!
It is important to eat in a dignified
manner. Sometimes we see people in a cafeteria line who haven't even
paid for the food yet and are already shoveling it in. This
is eating on automatic.
It resembles a dog who runs to the bowl and slurps up the food. When
we do this reflection and offer our food to the Buddha at our heart,
we eat slower and are more relaxed. This is how human beings
Reviewing the Day
In this way, we maintain mindfulness and
enrich our kind heart as we go through the day. When we come home in the evening, instead of
collapsing in front of the TV or dropping on the bed and falling
asleep, we can take a few minutes to sit quietly by
ourselves. We reflect about and come
to terms with what happened during the day. We look back over our
day and think, "What went well today? Did I act with a kind heart?"
We notice the instances when we acted kindly and rejoice. We
dedicate that merit, that positive potential, for the enlightenment
of ourselves and others.
In reviewing the day, we may discover that
we were angry, jealous, or greedy. We didn't realize it at the time
when it was happening. But looking back over the day, we don't feel
so good about what happened. It may have been our attitude, or what
we said to somebody, or how we acted. To remedy this, we develop
regret and do some purification practice so we can forgive ourselves
and let that negative energy go. In
this way, we "clean up" emotionally and resolve any uncomfortable
feelings or misdirected actions that may have arisen during the day.
Having done this, our sleep will be peaceful. When you lie down,
imagine the Buddha sitting on your pillow and put your head in the
Buddha's lap when you go to sleep. This is very comforting and helps
you to remember the Buddha's good qualities and to have better
Our Life Becomes Meaningful
Practicing Dharma is not difficult or time
consuming. We always have time; there are always 24 hours in a day.
If we direct our mind in a positive
direction, we can transform whatever action we do into the path to
enlightenment. In this way, the Dharma
becomes part of our life in an organic way. Getting up in the
morning is Dharma, eating and going to work is Dharma, sleeping is
Dharma. By transforming our attitude in the midst of daily
activities, our life becomes very meaningful.