It is possible to take the very best and turn it into the very worst. When religion turns political and is used to exclude, oppress or harm others, we have turned gods into demons. Zen Buddhism doesn’t have external gods and demons because in Zen all such concepts are expressions of a deluded human mind.
But Zen does have dharma, a set of teachings that, if followed, can develop enough wisdom and compassion to interrupt the human tendency to greed, hate and deluded thinking. When we first encounter the practical guidelines in the Lojong slogans, we become open and excited. It is so refreshing to find teachings that we can apply to our everyday life. But the more we practice the slogans, the more tempted we become to close down and check out.
At first, meditation and compassion practices seem so beautiful and gentle. They enrich and nurture us. But as we continue, we encounter a more difficult and provocative side to meditation and mind training that dissolves the masks we wear. We begin to realize how mindless we can be, how difficult it is to release our conditioning and how self-centredness prevents us from living out our very best intentions.
As practice begins to challenge us to make some real changes in our characters, interest wanes and we drop away. When spiritual training is no longer a pleasant add-on to our regular way of living our lives, and demands a significant personal transformation, we feel threatened.
At this point, we have reached a crossroads where we can either open to deeper spiritual training or we can shut down and hold the status quo. Many will co-opt the practice into supporting their egos so that, rather than challenging their self-centred quest for pleasure, practice nourishes it. We keep the feel-good part and reject the hard work of continued spiritual growth. In doing so, we turn the teachings into anti-teachings.
It is simple: In one approach, we fit the dharma into our small-mindedness; in the other, we dissolve small self into the vastness of selfless compassion and wisdom. When we use dharma to feed our egos instead of helping us to train to become more open and gentle, we close our minds and develop arrogance. We turn the dharma, a path that is designed to make us humble, flexible, compassionate and awake, into a kind of demon that feeds our spiritual laziness.
Making the teachings into a credential for the ego is a perversion of practice. It is using attachment to a superficial version of the dharma to destroy what true dharma is all about. In Buddhism, this is the same as turning a god into a demon.
Today’s practice: In your spiritual training, how have you changed? In what ways have you become more appreciative and open, and in what ways have you become more opinionated, self-centred and closed? How can you identify with the spiritual path without making it into just another credential?
This column is a long series of short essays exploring the meaning of the Lojong Slogans. It is inspired by the work of Judy Lief.
Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-3390.