So what we can do? The one thing common to all is everyone wishes to be free from suffering and wishes to have happiness. And for the sake of this everyone is making effort in worldly, spiritual or other ways. But no matter what we do there is no end to suffering and no gain of the happiness we seek.
So how can we get this? Lord Buddha teaches that every sentient being possesses buddha-nature. The true nature of our mind is pure. Right from the beginning it is never stained with obscurations of any form. Therefore if we try we can attain enlightenment.
At the moment we do not see this buddha-nature, being completely covered with obscurations. But the obscurations are not within the nature of the mind. If they were they could never be eliminated. For example the nature of coal is black, so no matter how much you wash it, coal will never become white. Due to dirt the whiteness of a white cloth is not seen, but with correct methods we can wash then see the actual colour. Similarly the obscurations in our minds are only at the outer level and with the right methods, could be eliminated. Therefore if we work hard following the Dharma path we can become fully enlightened Buddhas.
For these reasons, the most important thing is spiritual practice, because all other things such as material wealth or power are only beneficial within this lifespan. The day we leave this world we have to leave everything behind - our wealth, friends, even our precious body. Only consciousness is left, and when it leaves all we can rely on is spiritual practice.
When we face major problems, there is a vast difference between the person who has spiritual ideas and the one who does not. When the person without any spiritual assistance faces such sufferings they are in a desperate situation and have to rely on other very wrong methods, perhaps having to take extreme measures. One of the basic teachings of Buddha is that everything created by cause and conditions is impermanent. And any actions connected with defilements are sufferings. So when we face such problems it is obvious it is not something just happening to us, but impermanence and suffering are the nature of existence itself.
When one understands that, even though the problem may be the same, the person who has spiritual assistance is ready to face it because he knows it's the nature. Due to this it lessens the mental burden. And when one's mental burden is lessened outer physical suffering is also, because mind is the boss and the body like a servant. If the mind is happy, even one could be in the poorest conditions but still be happy. And if the mind is not happy even one has the best facilities still one has a lot of misery. So since the mind is the most important, to give us strength to face the challenges of suffering even for this life, the most important thing is Dharma practice.
Although we are all human beings, each one has a different mind, different defilements and so forth. In order to suit every level of our minds the Buddha bestowed an enormous amount of teachings. One kind of teaching is not enough. Just as we require many medi- cines in order to cure the different types of disease, similarly in order to help the limitless sentient beings, the Buddha also gave many many teachings.
Generally speaking there are two different types of followers - the followers who wish to follow the smaller goal, and the followers who wish to follow the greater goal. That is why we have the two yanas of hinayana and mahayana. Although the hinayana path has many teachings, what in essence is most important is not to harm any sentient being. If one harms any sentient being physically or mentally, it is not right.
The mahayana path is not only non-harming but also benefitting as much as one can, because each and every sentient being is like ourself. From our own experience we can learn how much we wish to be free from suffering and wish to have happiness. From tiny insects to the most intelligent humans up to the deva realms, every sentient being has the same feeling: all wish to be free from suffering and to have happiness. Therefore it is not proper just to think of oneself, because oneself is one person and others are countless. Between one and many which is more important? The many is more important. Besides that, on selfish thoughts good things never arise - only sufferings arise.
Shantideva said, "All sufferings in this universe came from caring for oneself." If we think of ourself we have jealousy, pride, stinginess, desire, hatred etc. All impure thoughts arise, and any actions created with these impure thoughts create only sufferings. Just as from a poisonous root anything that grows is poison, similarly any actions created from these de- filements are only suffering. So when we think of ourselves only, all we can achieve is more suffering.
Shantideva also said that all the happiness in this universe came from wanting others to be happy. If we wish others to be happy then all the good things, all the qualities come, just as if a root is medicinal, anything that grows from it is medicine. Similarly on the basis of loving-kindness and compassion, wanting to help other sentient beings, any actions that are created are happiness. That is why the root of the mahayana teachings is loving kindness and the compassion. Therefore we must try in every way to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion.
However merely having compassion is not enough, we must rescue sentient beings from suffering and put them onto the path of happiness. But at the moment we ourselves are not free, we do not have full knowledge or full power. We are completely bound by our karma and defilements. So how can we help? The sole most effec- tive way to help sentient beings is to attain perfect enlightenment, because having attained perfect enlightenment then even during a single moment we can rescue countless sentient beings.
This perfect enlightenment does not arise without proper cause and conditions, and that is following the mahayana path. First is to have a very sincere wish to attain the perfect enlightenment, then one practises, the main thing being method and wisdom. In order to fly one needs two wings. Similarly in order to attain enlightenment one needs two: the method to realise the wisdom, and the wisdom itself. And they depend on each other. Method means to accumulate merit like generosity, moral conduct, patience, endeavour, and concentration. Loving- kindness and compassion will only suppress faults because the main fault is self-clinging, and these method practices only supress self-clinging. In order to completely dig out the root of self-clinging we require the wisdom that completely eliminates it, and for this we must have concentration. With these two together we will be able to attain perfect enlightenment.
Many people say it's very difficult to practise Dharma particularly in big cities where there is so much distraction and busyness. However, Lord Buddha gave many teachings, the purpose of which was to tame our wild minds. It is due to our wild mind being so involved with defilements, that from the begining we have been caught in the realm of existence and suffer. We've already suffered so much in the past, are still suffering and furthermore if we do not work now we will continuously experience suffering. So therefore the Buddha gave teachings involving many different forms of practising, but all these are to tame our minds.
The sanskrit word "dharma" has many different meanings but the word generally means to change, to change our impure or wild mind that is so involved with the defilements, to change it to the right path. So every practice we do if it doesn't change, (although of course even just doing the practice has benefit), it is not so effective. In order to be effective, we must see whether the practice we are doing really makes a difference in our mind or not.
If it changes our mind, then if we use it in the right way we could be the busiest person in the busiest city but still be a very good Dharma practitioner because everything we see and do, everyone we associate with, gives us a chance to practise Dharma.
For example when travelling in cities and noticing many changes, that is impermanence. When we see so much suffering, we are experiencing the Dharma that Buddha tells us, ie that everything is suffering. The fact we actually see it with our own naked eyes, means we also learn from that. When we associate with people we have a chance to help, to practise compassion. When people disturb or are angry with us, it gives a chance to practise patience. So if we could utilize our everyday life, then everywhere when we are travelling, at work or at home, we could use it in practising Dharma.
From these different experiences it will help us to understand deeper, and how important it is to practise Dharma. Higher meditations like concentration and insight are very important. But in order to reach that level, the basic foundations such as the difficulty of obtaining the precious human birth, impermanence and death, the cause of karma, and the suffering of samsara - ie the four common foundations - are very important. These you can learn from a teacher and read in books.
However to gain knowledge is not enough. If we have known it for a long time but it hasn't made any change in us, we still remain the same person. We still have anger, we still cannot practise Dharma. Although we must have heard the difficulties of obtaining the precious human birth a hundred times, if it hasn't made any change - we are still in the same level, we still have the defilements, we still are not practising. Why? Because we do not experience it.
So, knowing it and through contemplation having the experience, are two different things. One may know many teachings but if one doesn't practise, if one doesn't use it in one's daily life, then it is not right. For example the purpose of making delicious food is to eat it. If you make but don't eat it there is no point! Similarly knowing Dharma is to utilize it in our daily life. To do this we have to use many different methods including our daily experiences.
With these basic foundations, if we could not only understand everything we see as a teaching but have an inner feeling, inner urge, then we would not waste our time. We would definitely make every effort, just as people in prison have constantly only one thought, "when can I get out of this? " When you have this real sincere desire to practise Dharma your inner higher meditations will generally arise.
First to have the basic foundations depends on our merit. In past lives due to accumulating merit, we are born in this life as human beings, have the good fortune to hear the Dharma, and a chance to practise. Similarly in order to have real inner feeling about spiritual practice depends on the merit we have. So at the same time we must accumulate merit through prayers, devotion to the Guru and to the Buddha Dharma Sangha, and through practising loving-kindness and compassion to all sentient beings. In this way when our merit increases also our wisdom increases, and these two go together. When the merit is fully built up the wisdom will also come, and with the merit and wisdom together one will be able to succeed in the path.
(From a talk by His Holiness Sakya Trizin at Jamyang Meditation Centre, 3/10/91)