Practical Buddhism: Living Everyday Life

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Practical Buddhism: Living Everyday Life
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Practical Buddhism is a collection of insights and tales about practising dharma in everyday life. These humorous accounts of the mundane successes and failures of the author and his friends offer practical guidance for anyone wishing to align their daily lives with Buddhist values and ideas. Stories about answering the door, quarrelling with dogs, coping with city traffic, living with cell phones, greeting others, etc. employ wit and irony to demonstrate that really effective progress in improving one s character is often made in mundane ways. The anecdotes and reflections that the author shares in this book are straight from his own life. Of course, each of us has grown up in different circumstances and encountered different situations in our lives, but no matter what culture or historical era we're from, our human minds function in very similar ways. Each of us wants to be happy and avoid suffering although different people, possessions, and places may bring us happiness or suffering. Despite this desire for happiness not misery, we lack the knowledge of what the causes for each are. In fact, we often find that the words we said or deeds we did with the conviction that they would bring us joy resulted in the opposite. The moment we get the gorgeous new car we've craved, we've entered "car hell" for the car will surely break down at the most inopportune times. The repairs will cost more than we like and may not completely fix the problem. Alongside "car hell" are situated "computer hell," "iPod and Blackberry hell," "relationship hell," and on and on. We keep looking outside of ourselves for someone or something that will bring us the satisfaction and joy we seek, yet these continually elude us. And to the contrary, the difficulties we shun find us anyway.

About the Author(s)

Kenneth Liberman is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon. He is the author of Dialectical Practice in Tibetan Philosophical Culture (Rowman & Littlefield), Husserl's Criticism of Reason (Lexington Books) and More Studies in Ethnomethodology (SUNY Press). He presently divides his time between Sera Jey Monastic University in Bylakuppe, India, where he serves as the PhD Proctor/Professor, and research assignments as the Hans Christian Anderson Visiting Professor at Suddansk Universitet in Denmark and University Research Fellow at the Universita di Trento in Italy.


Ken Liberman and I initially met in 1978 at Kopan Monastery, outside of Kathmandu, Nepal, where we were attending a one-month meditation course taught by LamaThubten Yeshe, and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Both of us were been deeply touched by the Buddha's teaching and wanted to learn and practice more. In addition, Lama Yeshe's skilful presentation of the teaching hooked us. Lama had the uncanny ability to speak the truth about our personal and societal confusion in a way that got us. Lama had the uncanny ability to speak the harsh truth about our the uncanny ability to speak the harsh truth about our personal and societal confusion in a way that got us to laugh at ourselves and at the same time see that this was a serious situation we needed to attend to.

Over the next few years, Ken and I kept bumping into each other at teachings and Dharma centers in India and Nepal, but after a while the "winds of karma" took us to different parts of the world. We both pursued our chosen Dharma paths, Ken as a serious lay practitioner, me as a monastic. Every few years we would run into each other at a Dharma event somewhere in the world and check in with each other. I've consistently admired Ken's ability to combine scholarship and practice, and his humility regarding his accomplishments in both. He has a wide variety of interests-including yoga, surfing, and Indian culture-and brings the perspectives gleaned from these to bear when he examines an issue. He lives a full life, having chosen to follow his heart rather than to fill his wallet, and I am constantly amazed how a Buddhust scholar who's had five heart surgeries can be so attached to surfing!

Ken has spent a quarter of his life living outside of the U.S. and many of these Dharma stories occurred abroad. His first international trip was to the southern Philippines when he was 19. His college had sent him to teach English to high school students in a Muslim village on the island of Mindanao. It was there that he first glimpsed people who were more contented with their lives than many of those where he grew up, in the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Beverly Hills. The warmth that the Filipino Muslims shared with each other in their streets and front porches each evening touched him deeply: they demonstrated an eagerness to know and care for each other that he sought but could not easily find when he returned home. Instead of a soft concern for one's neighbours, his Beverly. Hills neighbours always seemed to be searching for something new and attractive. But ironically, they were much more dissatisfied than the Filipinos who owned much less. This triggered a strong resolve in Ken to quest for life's meaning a journey that brought him to many corners of the world.

But he was not a tourist. He went to live with the most remote Aboriginal people of Australia, in the Central Desert, to learn how people without houses and who know only a natural landscape related to it. He learned their Pitjantjatjsrra language and spent several assisting them to secure their land rights. When I met him at Kopan in 1978, he had been deeply moved by the Buddhist notion of unbiased compassion and was also exploring the wisdom aspect of the path as well.

Although Lama Yeshe typically did not advise his students to learn te Tibetan language, he encouraged Ken to study it. Lama taught that Dharma practice is more important tan scholarly knowledge, but Ken has sought ways to glean the practical from his philosophical investigations, which included European philosophers as well as Indian and Tibetan thinkers. Thinkers. He and his wife Anne went to Dharamsala, India, and after some time studying at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in the early 1980's they went to Sakya College and the Dialectical Institute to pursue studies in more traditional Tibetan settings.

After Lama Yeshe passed away in 1984, Ken went to study with Lama's teachers at Sera Jey Monastic University in South India, where he spent several years studying the major texts on Madhyamaka philosophy. He has translated one text by the first Panchen Lama, and now brings study abroad students from the University of Oregon to spend a term studying there.

Ken now spends a good deal of time in Mexico and regularly travels to Argentina, Brazil China, Denmark, India, and Italy to give short-term courses for graduate and postgraduate students of ethnomethodology. He still Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Oregon, where e spent 30 years.

The anecdotes and reflections that Ken shares in Practical Buddhism: living everyday life are straight from his own life. Of course, each of us has grown up in different circumstances and encounters different situations in our lives, but no matter what culture or historical era we're from, our human minds function in very similar ways. Each of us wants to be happy and avoid suffering although different people, possessions, and places may bring us happiness or suffering. Despite this for happiness not misery, we lack the knowledge of what the causes for each are. In fact, we often find that the words we said or deeds we did with conviction that they would bring us joy resulted in the opposite. The moment we get the gorgeous new car we've craved, we've entered "car hell," for the car will surely break down at the most inopportune times. The repairs will cost more than we like and may not completely fix the problem. Alongside "car hell" are situated "computer hell," "iPod and Blackberry hell''," "relationship hell," and on. We keep looking outside of ourselves for someone or something that will bring us the satisfaction joy we seek, yet these continually elude us. And to the contrary, the difficulties we shun find us anyway.

We're looking for happiness in the wrong place, like the famous story of the guy looking for his house key under the street lamp. "Where did you lose it?" asked a passerby, wanting to help the search. "On the other side of the street," said the man, "but it's dark over there and it's easier to look for it here where there's a street lamp."

Similarly, while the source of contentment and joy lie within ourselves, we exhaust ourselves trying to rearrange our environment so that everything we want is in it and everything we don't want has been expelled. But that's a fruitless pursuit because who amongst us is able to control the external world and everyone in it? We have lots of advice for how everyone else should live their lives so that we would be happy, but these people don't want to hear our advice and even if they do, they don't follow it correctly.

It would be wiser to look within our own hearts and minds and flesh out the wrong conceptions and fallacious expectations that prevent us from seeing things accurately. Our problem isn't that we can't get what we want, it's the craving itself. Based on an inflated idea of the goodness of someone or something, we crave it, telling ourselves there's no way we can possibly be happy without it. Meanwhile millions of other people live very well without that person or possession. Happiness doesn't abide in that person or object; happiness arises when we are free from obsessively craving it.

Similarly, misery does not abide in the person who harms us; misery arises from our self- centeredness and ignorance that skew our perception of that person. Another person does not make us angry; the seed of anger abides encounter "obnoxious" people and find people to hate wherever we go.

It would do us well to look inside and counteract the causes of suffering that are our misguided ways of thinking. This is what Buddhist is all about, and this is what Ken so accurately depicts in these revealing anecdotes. He shares his life with us, and through this we see our own lives. While the circumstances of his life may differ from ours, when we look past the external conditions to the human condition that lies behind them, we discover that we are all basically the same. Ous anger may not arise when dealing with taxi drivers in India, but it may explode regarding our colleague at work who is delayed in completing a project that our work depends on. Our attachment may not be for a child's rubber ball, it may be for our reputation, but regardless, we share with the child a fixation on something that, at the end of the day, isn't very important because it has the nature of change. We may have grown up in a poor section of town, not in Beverly Hills, but family dynamics are similar; parents who are plagued with their own problems are trying to raise children as best they can despite their own physical, mental, and emotional limitations.

Read the book slowly, pausing after each chapter to contemplate its meaning and relate it to your own life. Extend understanding and compassion to yourself just as you do towards Ken as he reveals how he learns from life. Rejoice at your good qualities and virtues and know that your limitations are adventitious and can be eliminated. And remember that only we can work of eradicating them. While we can hire someone to fix our computers, only we can do the internal work necessary to "reformat" our way of thinking.


When a person comes upon two dogs that are about to commence a fight in some street or alleyway, it is natural to attempt to bring the confrontation to a conclusion by shouting at the dogs or chasing them away. Although the human who interferes in these canine affairs has little appreciation of the vital dog-issues that have lent importance to the struggle, it is for certain that the human discounts them and does not consider them so critical that a fight about them is necessary. How do we learn to take the same perspective regarding our own affairs, so that we recognize that most of the conflicts that keep looming before us are unnecessary? Many of the practices of Buddhism are designed to give us that kind perspective upon our own affairs. Instead of our lending exaggerated importance to whatever it is we are immediately caught up with, one who "practices Buddhism" learns to step back and always read events in the perspective of a broader recognition of what is really important. Such a person can achieve some reconciliation with one's being as one lives daily in one's everyday life. It is not so hard a thing to accomplish that ordinary people cannot have some success at it.

One does not have to meditate but it helps, and of course one of the better known practices of Buddhism is meditation; however, there is a good deal of misunderstanding about it. As a colleague of mine from Sera Monastery, Gesha Thubten Tashi, once explained to me decades ago, one does not meditate so that one can experience "some kind of nice." It is important to meditate so that one can successfully transform one's limited perspective in an enduring way, so that we naturally and habitually will act in accord with the dharma most of the time. It is not important to meditate so that one can become accomplished the next time one visits a dharma center, and it is not important to meditate so that we learn to consider our own conflicts as unnecessary as are the conflicts of quarrelling dogs, so that we are more able to contribute harmony everywhere we travel, to the benefit of each person we meet. This happens when we keep acting from a place of contentment. That is our meditate.

I am frequently asked, "What is meditation?" I reply that there are many kinds and many levels of meditation, but that "job-one" is to accept the responsibility for one's own happiness; and if one is unable to do that, at least one should make an effort develop a capacity to not inflict one's unhappiness or emotional afflictions upon others. Above all, one should not blame anyone for one's unhappeness, since finding a way to be content is exclusively a personal responsibility. At least once each day it is beneficial to check-in with "home," as it were, and reconnect with one's contentment, so that at a minimum one does not keep going around disturbing others like a hungry ghost.

Meditation fosters mindfulness. But meditation is not something to be made a separate occasion; it is an aspect of what we bear continuously. The Tibetan etymology of "meditation" suggests a notion very different from what the English term evokes in the minds of most readers. The Tibetan sgom (pronounced "gom") literally means "cultivation," "habituation" or "familiarization" more than it means sitting cross-legged on the floor in some sort of mentally induced era of good feelings. "Gom" is the gradual but persistent effort to transform the habitual patterns of one's mundane behaviour. It is a practice of integrating valued insights into one's psychophysical comportment in a manner that allows them to endure and become a lasting part of our nature. It is because changing our habits requires more than thinking good thoughts that we need to sustain this cultivation over a long period of time. That is why the Gelug founder Tsong Khapa put the rim ("gradual," "progressive," "by stages") in Atisha's lam ("path"), and this is the centremost insight of Tibetan spiritual culture. In a common dedication prayer that is used to conclude each group or individual meditation session, one expresses one's determination to tame one's mind incrementally, in order to proceed steadily "from one stage to the next stage" ("gong ney gong du"). Tibetans are not believers in any "instant enlightenment" but put their faith in a slow but sure path of gradual self-improvement.

Many traditions have practices of meditation. What distinguishes the Mahayana traditions is that they do not practice simply for the sake of experiencing "some kind of nice" bur for the sake of becoming a better human being who can become more capable of bringing peace to other. Therefore, it is less of an absorption excusively with one's self than are some meditative practices in other traditions.

But this is not a book about meditation; it is a book about practice in the mundane world. Mahayana practice involves a commitment to transforming ourselves, and as part of this work we are advised to meditation upon flaws each day. Especially, we are asked to reflect upon the mistakes we have made in the previous day, to recognize how we could have handled other better and to resolve to improve our behaviour in the future. The 19th century Tibetan master Pabongka has written of the Gesha Ban Gungyel, who reviewed his virtuous actions and misdeeds each day, allocating one white pebble to each misdeed, allowing him to compare the piles. This book is a bit like and follows Pabongka's advice (and the advice of Kamalashila before him) to resolve to renounce misbehaviour and to cultivate virtues by keeping track, in the way Geshe Ban Gungyel did by reviewing his successes and failures.

Jewish tradition offers the formal requirement of doing this once each year on the Day of Atonement; however, any decent rabbi will year long. The special day serves only as a strong reminder of how important is the practice of recalling our faults and developing some resolve to improve our shortcomings daily in order to transform them. This book is a guide for how to do this kind of analysis of our ordinary affairs.

Each time a disappointment occurs, Instead of becoming angry or disappointed, disturbed or depressed, it is best to treat the occasion as a difficult-to-find opportunity to have further practice at maintaining a sense of joy and contentment amidst contrary circumstances; in fact, one can learn to rejoice each time some failure presents another good opportunity for us to study our misdeeds. This book includes many descriptions of failure to act in a Buddhist way in everyday situations. Any time one acknowledges such a failure it is longer real failure but the first step of practice. Buddhist practice does not mean always acting successfully, but it does mean being frank about assessing how one could act in a more ideal way. These accounts were written in the spirit that Descartes used in his Discourse on Method: "I did nothing but wander here in the world, trying to be more a spectator than an actor in all the comedies that are played what might render it suspect and give occasion for erring."

Practice involves analyzing failures skilfully, understanding that they are transitory and open to transformation, and the transforming oneself. This book provides many examples that are models for how this can be done. These models are mundane because our failures and successes are mundane. All of the meaningful solutions are mundane. Our long-term aim is to reduce the frequency with which become angry toward others and to become more to bring happiness to each person we meet. Practice can even making a contest out of how man unhappy, "up-tight" associates one can cheer up in a day. Like the case with the quarrelling dogs, fostering harmony is more important than who was right or wrong. That is our responsibility as humans; compassion is our humanity. At the very least, we can accept the responsibility to never inflict a sour mood on others. This is where Buddhism can begin.

Some of my friends are cynical about this. They accuse me of being romantic and doubt that the everyday actions of my Tibetan friends differ much from the survival of the fittest practices that are routine in much American life. Such cynicism is prevalent among my colleagues in the university, including some Tibetologists, whose cynicism is so deeply ingrained they may be incapable of accepting that there are people in the world for whom kindness and compassion typically prevail over self-interest. When I report to them the comment be a Sera lama, "I have never hurt any person in this life, and I've never been jealous," they dismiss it as unlikely. They see their own limitations to be universal and project their cynicism and scepticism everywhere. But that is only another form of ignorance, in the way that Tibetans use the word "ignorance": for them , it is not what you do not know that makes you ignorant- it is what you do know that makes you ignorant. By projecting the limited world one has understood for oneself onto all our affairs, those affairs are transformed so that they conform to one's way of understanding them. One's mind becomes so filled up with one's prejudices – the matters that are "pre-judged"-that one's mind has no space left for learning what one needs to know most: what one does not yet know. Ignorance involves having one's mind so filled with one's ideas that one is only able to see more of the same, and nothing further. Learning how to undo one's projections and remove them from active operation in order to see more clearly is part of the practice of "emptiness" in Mahayana Buddhism.

A brief story can illustrate that the Tibetans' practice of Buddhism is more than a skill with words and my observations about them more than naive sentimentalism. The first six months that I lived a Sera, in 1991, I stayed in one of the established "houses" that operate as residential colleges within the larger structure of Sera Jey Monastic University. There were some thirty monks living in my "house," including four teachers, and they all shared a single bathroom. It was not a proper bathroom, since it had no running water (one had to pump the water from a nearby well and carry it in to a large clay container of water in the bathroom). It was really an outhouse, and it served as the sole location for both bathing and defecation for thirty monks. During my six months there, I never once the bathroom. When I returned to my home in Eugene, where I was single parenting my then teenage son. Sonam, there was one modern bathroom for two people; and yet several time each week we had an argument over whose turn it was use the bathroom, and how long that use was taking, etc. Never mind grand theories of ethics or philosophy, and never skill in meditation. The proof is in practice: the Tibetan sustained no conflict about sharing the sole bathroom. When I once mentioned my discovery to the master of the "house," Geshe Tenpa Chophal, he said to me, "Well, we eat less than they do in the US." I cannot say whether or not these monks bore any jealousy in their hearts, but I can say that their practice, mundane as it was served as an inspiration to me.

In the last decade I made a special effort to notice exemplary practices such as this one, and I made many notes about them. Unfortunately, there were also many occasions of failure to practice by myself and by others, and I made notes of them as well, along with some analysis of their main components. These accounts take up the most ordinary of ci8rcumstances – answering the door, greeting others, coping with cell phones, driving in heavy traffic, surfing, dealing with misunderstanding, living with attachments, etc. Each story bears a vital message that has its origins in the Kadampa tradition, whose noble early cohort of Tibetan teachers paid special attention to how skilful we are at self-delusion, and how intransigent egoism is despite our efforts to remove it. It should be easy for the reader to locate him/herself in each account. Again, Buddhist practice does not always involves being successful, but it does require that we examine our actions. To some extent, then book is that examination, a record of my foolishness if you will, along with accounts of my efforts to address them. It has been an easy book to write, since I have so many failures to choose from. In short, we are learning together.

The stories in this book were written primarily for the sake of getting me to think more about how I could practice better. In doing so, I was able to understand for the first time the true purport of Shantideva's comments on the first page of both his famous Entering the Path of the Bodhisattva (byang chub sems dpa'i spyod pa la 'jugs pa) and his incredible collection of advice from the Buddha's sutras, Anthology of Trainings (bslab pa kun las btus pa), which I first studied under Geshe Sonam Rinchen in 1982:

Here I was not attempting to write for the sake of any others; rather, I have composed these lines only as a means for cultivating a better mind myself, thinking that they will lead me to become more resolved about cultivating virtuous behaviour. Even so, if occasionally som3eone with a similar orientation should see these lines and find them a means for improving their character the composition will have gained added significance.




Foreword by Ven. Thubten Chodron V
Acknowledgements XIII
Introduction XIV
I. The Peri-pathetic Practitioner
1 How to Answer a Doorbell 3
2 My Coffee Cup 8
3 One Way Not to Meditate 11
4 My Knee's Teaching 16
5 Everybody's Ignorance 20
6 The Sand Path in the Dune 26
7 Anger Makes You Ugly 30
8 Managing Interruptions 38
9 How to Treat a Taxi Driver 44
II. Methods for the Mundane
10 Writing Student Recommendations 53
11 Generosity 56
12 "Prego!" and Other Common Courtesies 60
13 Offering the Victory to Others 69
14 My Dune Speaks Back 73
15 A Daily Aspiration 77
16 Freeing Others 83
17 My Thinking Keeps Getting In Its Own Way 87
18 The No Honking Challenge 95
19 Putting Off Until Tomorrow What We Can Do Today 99
III. Tales From Around the World
20 The Goat 105
21 The Pride of Overcoming Pride 108
22 Fearing Anonymity 110
23 The Venerable Ani-la 116
24 My Father's "Failure" 122
25 The Successful Professor 129
26 The Rubber Ball 131
27 The Danger of Attachments 134
28 The Two Worst Gifts I Ever Received 137
29 "They Make Hatred At Me" 140
30 What Is the Right Way to Bow? 143
31 Seeking Faraway Places 148
IV. Modern Times
32 Is Compassion Universal? 157
33 Buddhist Environmentalism 162
34 The Emptiness of the Forest 169
35 Birds of a Feather 177
36 Surfing Ethics in Guanacaste 183
37 Cultivating Distraction 191
38 Compassion That Respected Marriage 193
39 Obsolete in My Own Time 195
V. Concluding Stories
40 Stopping the World in the Era of Multitasking 209
41 The Four Noble Truths 218
42 India, My Teacher of Patience 223
43 Yoga Tourism in India 228
44 Transforming Illness into the Path 239

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