Training and Enlightenment

by Rev. Kinrei Bassis

Everyone who is practicing Buddhism is generally seeking what Buddhism promises, finding for themselves a deeper sense of peace and happiness. Enlightenment experiences can be described as a deep insight into the real nature of reality so that we can see beyond our worldly mind, which is almost always clinging to some aspects of our life and pushing away some of our difficulties and pain. This deeper insight into the true nature of reality can help free us so we can have a clearer view of the unsubstantial nature of all the ways we create suffering. Yet enlightenment experiences do not free us from the ground of Buddhist training, taking responsibility for how we relate to everything in our lives. Buddhist training is not just a momentary experience that transforms us but is the ongoing practice of letting go of the importance we are giving ourselves and focusing on doing that which is good, for both ourselves and others. We all should have this desire to find a deeper sense of contentment and joy that is possible no matter what difficult conditions are unfolding in our life. The Dharma teaches us that “the Buddha can be found in all places, at all times, and in all situations.” However, the real question is how do we actually experience this enlightened life of Buddha rather than just living with a struggling life, filled with defilements, bound with many desires and fears. Buddhist training is the way we transform this body of karma, called the self, into a vehicle of enlightenment that will help to liberate both ourselves and others.

I can remember when I first began to practice Buddhism, I could see how much I was filled with defiled passions. My normal mind was absorbed into what seemed to be an endless flow of desires, greeds, and fears. I was frequently confronting many conditions in my life that I disliked or feared. I remembered thinking that it is not fair that I have all these difficulties. Why do I need to do all this very difficult work of Buddhist training? I remember thinking, I never asked to be deluded, to be so easily disturbed and hurt. When I took a sincere look at myself, I did not like many of the ways I behaved and thought. Yet to deeply change myself seemed to be impossible. If I strictly focused on all my difficulties, wondering when they would all change, the enormity of the needed changes made me feel that Buddhist training was hopeless for me. I had to learn to take the Dharma to heart and just trust that it was enough to do the spiritual training right now, not dwelling on the past or the future. Trusting all I need to do is that which is positive and good to do right now and that will take me, step by step, to the journey’s end.

We can look at Buddhist training as having a meditation practice, attending a temple, going on retreats, studying the Dharma, trying to keep the Buddhist precepts, being mindful, etc. And all of this is Buddhist training. Yet the heart of Buddhist training is really the willingness to act on our faith in the Dharma and try to behave in an enlightened manner despite still being filled with deluded thoughts and feelings. Buddhist training is trying to behave in an enlightened manner even though we recognize that many of our thoughts and feelings are deluded and out of harmony with the Dharma. What does it mean to behave in an enlightened manner? It means we are trying to treat everyone like a Buddha no matter how we feel about them. It means still showing gratitude even when we feel ungrateful. Being generous rather than selfish. Being kind and forgiving rather than angry and upset. Being compassionate rather than judgmental. Being modest and humble rather than being proud and arrogant. Being willing to act in accordance with what seems best rather than just being unwilling and selfish.

The Dharma teaches us that we can trust that no matter what is happening in our life right now, we can be at peace with it. Instead of getting caught up in the importance of what is happening, we can trust that what really matters is that we have the true Treasure, the heart of a Buddha, and no difficulty affects this spiritual truth. Buddhist training is trusting that this life of mine is the life of Buddha even though I feel like I am a mess and I do not understand how I can change. Yet the Dharma is telling us that no problem is fundamentally real and nothing stands against the ever-present life of Buddha. When we act on our faith in the Dharma despite feeling hurt or depressed or scared, we point ourselves to enlightenment; we point ourselves to what is real rather than just seeing a deluded view of reality which is filled with our obsessions about ourselves, about our problems, and about our desires and fears.

It is easy to be grateful when our hearts are filled with gratitude. It is easy to meditate when our meditation is feeling peaceful and joyful. It is easy to be kind and generous when our hearts are filled with kind and compassionate feelings. When someone offers to help at the temple and this help saves an immense amount of work, I do not need to seek a grateful mind. It will arise naturally. Someone may help at the temple, but then they mess something up, and this causes considerable additional work and expense. Yet this person was sincerely offering their generous help to the temple, and I still need to be grateful to them and their sincere willingness to offer their time and labor to the temple. When someone is angry with me or is treating me unfairly, it is Buddhist training for me to treat them with kindness and compassion. A mother can still be loving to her upset and angry child; can I still be kind to an upset and angry adult whom I am dealing with? I remember being around a monk who was given a wool cap that a Sangha member had knitted for him. The monk turned down the gift saying he is trying to have less stuff. I corrected him later and told him he should have accepted the cap since it was a sincere and meaningful gift. He should be willing to be a bodhisattva and not to just think of what he wants but be more sensitive to the sincere offering of the person who spent considerable time knitting him a cap.

Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett gave a lecture series called Sanctifying the Mundane. It was giving a teaching on how we should try to see all the deep spiritual significance of the endless ordinary activities of our daily life. When we have a meal, we often take it for granted rather than trying to see all the good karma that is providing us this gift of a meal. When we eat, instead of taking the food for granted, it is good to remind ourselves to be grateful. The meal-time verse is teaching us to have a grateful mind — ”We must think deeply of the ways and means by which this food has come.” Reminding ourselves to be grateful is an example of something we can cultivate in our lives, which is pointing us to enlightenment, while being ungrateful is that which is pointing us to being deluded and unhappy. Having something go wrong and still trying to have equanimity and acceptance points us to finding the Buddha, while being dissatisfied and angry will only be strengthening our delusions and feelings that things are amiss.

There is an old saying of a Zen Master, “Sometimes I raise the eyebrows of old Shakyamuni Buddha, and sometimes I do not.” One way of interpreting this saying is that sometimes we all show enlightened behavior, generally without us knowing it, while at other times we are demonstrating deluded behavior. A great Buddhist master will still have moments of being caught up in their desires and fears, and even the most deluded person will sometimes act selflessly and do the right thing without any concern for themselves. We are all living in the midst of enlightenment and delusion. Buddhist training is our attempt to bring together these opposites by simply concentrating on doing what is good, no matter how we are feeling. Someone once asked, how can they have the proper amount of caring? Sometimes they care too much about something, and sometimes they do not care enough about something: how do they find the right amount of caring? The way we do this is to try to see what is good to do in the deepest sense and then just do that which seems to be good. Whether we feel a great amount of care or we feel that we do not care, that is not what is important. Training would be easy if our feelings were in harmony with the Dharma. Instead, we have to grasp our will and still try to do what seems best even when we wholeheartedly do not feel like doing what seems to be the right action.

A simple example of this is when I give meditation instruction: I usually mention that if you will meditate only when you feel like meditating, it is almost guaranteed that you will not maintain a meditation practice. To practice meditation requires us to still maintain our meditation practice even when we are finding it difficult and uncomfortable. We do this because we trust that it is valuable to meditate even when it is difficult. It is like someone who has a problem with a joint that requires painful physical therapy. Few people would want to experience painful therapy, but when they do painful physical therapy, they are doing it with the faith that it is helpful and beneficial. It is the same with Buddhist training. It is often difficult and uncomfortable, but we do it because we have faith that it will help in the long run with the pain and suffering we are experiencing in our lives.

“The Wheel of the Dharma rolls constantly and lacks for nothing yet needs something.” The light of Buddha is everywhere, but unless we train, we live enclosing ourselves in darkness. Nothing is fundamentally being damaged by all our suffering, but, on the other hand, everyone definitely cares deeply about how they can relieve their own suffering and the suffering of the people they care about and love. The Four Noble Truths are a teaching on how to free ourselves from suffering. Buddhist training is taking the Four Noble Truths to heart and trying to live by them and not just following the endlessly changing flow of what we are feeling. The Noble Eightfold Path is a description of Buddhist training, and by trying to have Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Wisdom, we are pointing ourselves toward freeing ourselves from the opposites and living more and more in a way that allows the Buddha to be found within our own lives. Whenever I have trouble accepting what I am being given in my daily life, I need to come back to my Buddhist training and open my heart to what life is giving me, and recognize that it is up to me to try to find the Buddha within these difficult conditions.

“In the mind of the Bosatsu who is truly one with Great Wisdom, the obstacles dissolve.”
~ Scripture of Great Wisdom (The Heart Sutra)