Buddha statue in Vietnam

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo was one of the first Western women to be ordained as a nun in Tibetan Buddhism. After living for 12 years in a cave in the Himalayas, three of which she was in full retreat, she came out and established the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in Himachal Pradesh, India. The following is an excerpt from a talk she gave at Tushita, a Mahayana Buddhist meditation centre in north India.

The founders of practically all religions were thinking outside the box of their contemporary culture and beliefs. The Buddha, for example, definitely thought things through for himself. He rejected his whole cultural, spiritual box in which he was brought up and reinvented it. He didn’t reject everything just because it was current, but he nonetheless revisited it, reevaluated it and then through his own enlightenment experience, the pieces all fell into a rather different pattern, which in his day was quite revolutionary.

He had just gotten enlightened. He talks about dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of our unenlightened consciousness. He talks about the fact that we suffer, that although we want happiness and we put so much effort into being happy, because we’re deluded we mess it all up. And we create so many problems for ourselves and for all those around us. And eventually, as we say in this day and age, for the whole planet.

And he talked about the causes of dukkha—our grasping, clinging mind. And he talked of selflessness. He didn’t talk much actually about Buddha nature. He talked about how we are not who we think we are. But he didn’t really talk much about who we really are because he knew that we cannot really understand the unconditioned through the conditioned mind. The ultimate experience is beyond words. He called it nirvana and basically said that when you get there you’ll probably know. Until then anything we say will just be grasped by our egoistic conceptual mind and made into another concept.

So he himself was outside of the box of the time and society of his day. But as happens with all great religious leaders, their words which were so liberating, so free, become boxed up. It is memorized, eventually written down and you’re back in the box again. This is our dilemma on the spiritual path because on the one hand we’re seeking to go beyond the confines of ordinary conceptual societal thinking but at the same time we need that as a support.

Most of you here were brought up either in the West or in fairly affluent, educated middle-class Indian backgrounds, so by coming to a Buddhist centre you’re already outside of the box of your own culture, which is good. But the problem is then you find yourself sitting in somebody else’s box!

Buddhism has survived 2,600 years basically by putting itself in boxes. To change the analogy a little, imagine the Buddha dharma is like a very precious elixir that has to be contained. So it then takes various vessels—crystal, gold, silver—but always the same elixir is poured in. But it always takes on a different shape or colour because of the vessel which is contained in it. And that is perfectly alright. The elixir has to be contained. The problem is when we get fascinated by the vessel and forget the elixir. We get forget that it is just a container. It is so much more colourful, so much more beautiful, approachable than the elixir that looks like plain water. We get fascinated by the container and we forget what it contains. This is the danger.

So in this modern day we have Tibetan Buddhism, Indian Buddhism, Sri Lankan Buddhism, Thai Buddhism and they are all dharma. They all contain the elixir but so often even people practicing forget that what they are protecting is not the vessel, it’s the liquid inside the vessel. This is the problem for many people coming from the outside.

Jetsunma Tenzin PalmoWhen I first started practicing with my Rinpoche 50 years ago he said you must remember that Tibetan Buddhism is half Tibetan culture and half Buddhism, so if you throw out the culture just don’t throw out the dharma. Culture here, dharma here. But it isn’t really like that. Sometimes it’s very difficult to know which is the culture and which is the genuine dharma. But as much as possible, even as we assimilate with the outer trappings, you must not get caught up in thinking the outer trappings are the dharma. They’re just outer trappings. And if you’re in doubt, think of the Buddha. If you met the Buddha today as he was then 2,600 years ago, you’d walk past him. You’d think he’s some old scruffy sadhu. Monks are not allowed to wash except once or twice a month unless it’s monsoon. Monks are supposed to gather their robes from the charnel grounds. In other words, after bodies have been burned, any kind of material which is left over from the burning, they pick it up, sew it together and dye it.

Buddhism has been going for 2,600 years and what is truly extraordinary is that despite the difference in the vessels containing the dharma elixir, how untainted the actual elixir still is. Today you still have people sincerely studying, practicing, realizing and gaining the accomplishments. So after 2,600 years that’s pretty amazing. There are still accomplished beings in this world.

So what does it mean to think outside the box? All of us live and swim within a world of concepts. And our first very powerful concept is who we are, who we think we are. You have ideas about who you are that you want everyone else to know about. We identify with our gender, our nationality, race, social class, education and then we’re somebody’s brother or sister, husband or wife, mother or father. We play so many roles. And we all have memories telling us who we are. I’m a happy person. I’m an unhappy person. I had a wonderful childhood. I had a terribly abusive childhood. I’m a spiritual person. I’m totally worldly.

It’s all concepts. And those concepts box us in. They say we can do this much, can’t do more than that. These are my limits. And everything which we see and everyone we relate to, we relate to from this tight box of very limited judgments, prejudices and perceptions. It’s like we’re in this very small prison cell.

Most of you have come to India from somewhere else. That was a choice. So in one way this is an opening, but the important thing is not to go from one prison cell to another prison cell. Even if the new prison cell has nice decorations around the wall and burning incense, it’s still a prison cell. And as always the question is how to get out, how to be liberated.

To a certain extent we have to go from here to here so it obviously makes sense to take a path that’s already laid out for us. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is only when we try to change our identity into another identity because somehow we think that other identity is part of the path. We’re not being true to who we really are. We’re trying to change ourselves into something else. In other words, all you Westerners here do not have to become Tibetans. This is very serious. You do not get closer to enlightenment by pretending to be Tibetan.

Meditation really is how to begin to see how the mind functions and creates these ideas of who we are. This is why meditation is very difficult, because it is counter to how our egocentric mind wants to work, which is to just go with the flow and not question. And now we’re questioning as thoughts and feelings come up. Instead of accepting them we start questioning them and the whole idea of who am I because if we think I am this and I am that, we will think I am all these things. For those of us who believe in rebirth it’s useful to remember that if you met yourself in your last life you’d never recognize yourself and if you see yourself in your next lifetime you’d say who’s that?

boxesLike an actor playing many roles. There’s nothing wrong with the actor seeing themselves as Hamlet and on the stage playing Hamlet with all their heart. The problem is when they come off the stage, if they still think they’re Hamlet, they’re in trouble. And so even in this very lifetime we play many roles. You go to work you play one role, with your children you’re someone else, with your friends you’re someone else. And there’s nothing wrong with playing roles as long as you don’t believe in them. The problem when we think this is who I am?

The Buddha encouraged people to question. He says it in the Kalama sutra. He goes to one village and the people say to him, ‘We’re terribly confused. Every spiritual master that comes along gives his own rant about what he believes in and that everyone else is wrong and we only have to believe what he says and we’ll be safe. And then the next one comes along and says the opposite thing and says believe me, believe me. And now we’re totally confused. We don’t know how to judge who is right and who is wrong.’

He didn’t say to forget everything you’ve ever heard because I’m right, I’m the Buddha. Instead, he said you are quite right to doubt. All these religious leaders are giving their own spiel and they’re contradicting each other and you’re confused. You should listen to what people say and then you should see if this accords with what you know to be right or not. Put it into practice. Does it work or does it not work. Only when you yourself have seen that this leads to something higher and that it really, really does work, then you accept it. Don’t just take it because you believe in the teacher, because the teacher’s charismatic, because the teacher tells you he’s enlightened, because your friends believe in him. Only when you yourself have taken what they have said and tried it out and discovered it really works, then you can use it.

So Buddhism is the one religion that really allows you to inquire. First you hear it, study it, read about it and listen to teachers. You don’t just jump over and believe it. You go away and think about it. You go away and start thinking about it, analyzing it, comparing it with other things you’ve heard. You intellectually digest it. It’s like food. You take it, eat it, chew it up and if it’s good food you can digest it and it nourishes. You absorb it into your system.

Don’t just believe whatever you hear because it’s some big lama and everyone says he’s enlightened. First you hear it, really go away and think about it, put it into practice and if it really is beneficial, you become it. Otherwise we’re stuck in the box again. It’s a new box, but it’s just a box.

image 1: Ben Ashmole (CC BY-NC); image 2: Tgumpel (PD); image 3: Matthew Ramone (CC BY-NC-ND)