Practicing Buddhism in Daily Life
by Venerable Thubten Chodron©
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 children.
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 other people.
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
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
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 eat.
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 dreams.
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.