Smiling nun standing on a deckby Ven. Thubten Nyima

As the wonderful late teacher Geshe Lhundup Sopa writes in his Steps on the Path to Enlightenment: Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, “The purpose of listening to the Dharma is to apply it to your own mental continuum.”

In other words, we use the Dharma to evaluate our own mind and to determine what we need to abandon and what we need to cultivate. The Dharma helps us identify what afflictions are stronger in our mind and gives us antidotes to eradicate those afflictions

The purpose of the Dharma is not to help us diagnose other’s faults. Yet, how many of us use the Dharma to figure out what is wrong with other people?

Do we focus more on what others are doing and label this one as too angry, that one  as having a chip on her shoulder, and that one as arrogant beyond this world? Do we  spend more time analyzing others instead of focusing on the state of our own mind? If we are doing that, we are going about it the wrong way.

A good way to stop focusing on the faults of others and begin to focus on our own mind is to cultivate the following six beneficial mental attitudes.

  • Seeing ourselves as a patient
  • Perceiving the Dharma teacher as the doctor
  • Seeing the Dharma as a medicine
  • Perceiving Dharma practice as the cure for the illness
  • Seeing the Buddha as a holy being
  • Generating the wish that the Dharma will endure for a long time

First is perceiving ourselves as a patient.

We think of ourelves as someone with a serious disease. We have a disease called cyclic existence, which is  caused by attachment, anger, and ignorance, and the polluted karma we create when they run rampant in our mind. Just like a sick person suffers mental and physical pain as a result of his illness, so do we all suffer greatly as a result of mental afflictions and polluted karma.

So let’s think about what we do when we have a physical illness. What kind of a patient are we? Do we recognize we are ill and go to the doctor right away? Do we stew in denial for as long as possible and refuse to make an appointment with the doctor? Do you insist on trying to diagnose yourself, via the internet, and concoct your own medicine based on what friends or family recommend? These, of course, are not appropriate ways to deal with a physical illness and they are not useful either when dealing with our afflicted condition.

Instead, having contemplated deeply and accepted that we have this disease of cyclic existence, our next step is to find a good doctor that can help us get cured. However, since the disease of cyclic existence arises in the mind, we need medicine directed towards the mind. In other words, pills, injections, sprays, bandages, etc will not work. We need spiritual medicine.

Because of our great inability and resistance to see ourselves as sick—as having attachment, anger and ignorance—we really need to put a lot of effort in cultivating this attitude. We need to contemplate the disadvantages of cyclic existence and the desirability of attaining freedom from it. Once we generate this attitude, however, the other five will arise with less effort.

Once we gain conviction regarding our illness, we search for a doctor who has the wisdom, and compassion to help us heal. So, we turn to a qualified spiritual mentor.

The Buddha is the most skilled and qualified spiritual mentor. Why? Because, the Buddha was once just like us and he was able to free himself from the illness of cyclic existence; the same illness we have. He, therefore, is an expert and can show us how he did it. His expertise is based on the fact that he developed great compassion; he abandoned the afflictions and ignorance of grasping at a self; attained his own aims; and, is intent on helping others do the same. These qualities make him a reliable doctor.

Since the Buddha is no longer alive, we rely on other qualified spiritual mentors who teach exactly what he taught. We rely on those who give the same medicine the Buddha gives.

So, what is the medicine that the Buddha gives? Dharma is the medicine.

Everything the Buddha teaches is aimed at freeing us from anger, attachment and ignorance. The medicine may be bitter or hard to take, yet taking it is the key to getting cured.

Let’s reflect on our attitude when we go see a doctor. Do you go home thinking… “this doctor does not know anything?” Do we instead go on the internet, type our symptoms, and attempt to diagnose ourselves? Do we rely on friends and family to recommend a medicine to treat our illness? Of course, if we follow the “do-it-yourself” approach we take our chances. We may end up worse off than we were before. Or, we may continue to be sick for a long period of time because we didn’t get the proper medicine.

Instead, once we have identified the qualifications of the doctor, following their advice is a matter of course. And, by extension, we regard the medicine such qualified doctor gives as absolutely necessary for our well-being.

We are fortunate to live at a time when the Buddha’s teachings still exist. Moreover, we have access to spiritual mentors who teach exactly what the Buddha taught. So, if we don’t take advantage of our good situation, If we don’t follow the teacher’s instructions, we will not be able to get rid of our disease.

To cure our inner disease, the disease of cyclic existence, it is not sufficient to practice some of the teachings just once or twice, here and there. Rather, it is necessary to practice every part of the path.

We need to practice with consistency and intensity in order to see beneficial results.

Geshe Sopa recommends cultivating a mind that thinks, “If I take this practice seriously and apply it continuously, I will definitely recover from this disease.” He explains that this kind of trust and faith are necessary to make Dharma practice effective.

In other words, once we have received the teachings, we have to take the medicine. That is, we have to meditate and practice. If we understand the teachings but do not put them into practice through meditation, then we will not see any results.

Lastly, we generate the wish for the Dharma to endure so that we and others can continue to benefit from the teachings.