Orientation: This blog chronicles one reclusive American’s journey trying to become a Tibetan Buddhist.
Every culture and tradition has perfunctory utterances. In the US we say “How are you?” or “How’s it going”? No one really expects an answer other than “fine, thanks”. But if you insist on one, people may answer you from a lot of different places. They may talk about their job, relationships, health, personal goals and many other possible topics. It is the same, I have found, in Tibetan Buddhism. But in this instance, the obligatory question is “How’s your practice?”.
Over the years, as I observed this social institution going on in Buddhist settings, and as I listened to people’s predictable response of , “It’s going good”, I learned that the word ‘practice’ means a ton of different things. And while these meanings are related, overall, they can be a bit hard to sift through and make sense of what is going on. Especially if you are like I was for 3 years, without a teacher, and trying to learn how to ‘practice’. It is really tough to master a skill when you are not even sure what it is you are attempting to accomplish.
Here are some common meanings for what middling and advanced Buddhist practitioners may mean when they ask each other the required (and a bit dreaded), “How’s your practice”?
DISCLAIMER: If you have a teacher, then there is likely no confusion about what “practice” means for you.
- Calm Abiding Meditation: This is the kind of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism that is closest to what mainstream commercial America means by “mindfulness”. It means, usually, sitting in the 7 point posture, and counting your breaths or focusing on your breath. And usually, the directions are if a thought arises, to simply notice it and then let it dissolve. Do not entertain the thought and get what they call “caught up in the story”. When I was just learning to meditate in this way, I used an app called Stop Breath Think because it has many guided meditations to help give you a framework about how to “let thoughts dissolve”. In my case, I did not know exactly what “let thoughts dissolve’ even meant. The app gives you a starting point. However, in Tibetan Buddhism, I have never seen or heard of a person using a guided meditation for calm abiding meditation (aka Samantha). So you will need to ween yourself off such meditation apps and learn to simply sit, alone or in a group, as you face the nature of your mind on your own.
- A Daily Regimen of Prayers, Mantras and Liturgies: Tibetan Buddhism has hundreds of different “practices” or “liturgies” and thousands of prayers. It is overwhelming at first to make sense about where to start or what to do. There are certain ones that are OK for anyone to say, but then there are others that require what is called an “empowerment” and/or a transmission. Then there is the practice of mantra repetition. As you attend teachings and events, you will begin to gain exposure to certain practices. In order to do this, you will need to find a center such as The Vajrayana Foundation or Kunzang Palyul Choling
- A Way Of Life: Another platitude you will soon have heard a million times is “Your practice does not stop when you leave your cushion”. This means, obviously, that your entire life is your practice. As I understand it, this refers to the 8-fold noble path of (1) right view (2) right thought (3) right speech (4) right action (5) right livelihood (6) right effort (7) right mindfulness (8) right concentration. Your ‘practice’ is the mindfulness you have every moment about everything you think about doing, do, or actually do. It also has to do with how you do all these things. It has to do with how you deal with that irritating guy in front of you in traffic, the rude customer service representative, and the nice neighbor who told you you left the hose on in your front yard.
‘Practice” is a bit of a loaded term in Tibetan Buddhism. It is a term used to refer not only to Buddhism itself, but all the parts that make up the whole.