What is dharma practice?
GA: Rinpoche. If someone who didn’t know anything about dharma, perhaps they have just heard about Buddhism and they didn’t know what dharma is, and they came to you and they said “OK Rinpoche, I am interested in Buddhism and I have heard the term ‘dharma practice’, can you explain what it is?”
ZTR: dharma in Sanskrit generally means ‘phenomena’ or ‘all things’. All phenomena is called dharma. But when we use the term dharma in Buddhism we are not talking about that meaning. In the traditional sense ‘dharma practice’ means spiritual practice. Spiritual practice can be a particular religious practice and can also be following a spiritual path.
The Tibetan word for dharma is Cho (with two little dots on top). dharma practice is called Cho Jay. Jay means doing. Cho Jay means doing the dharma practice. The meaning of dharma is very simple. dharma is doing beneficial work for others. If you do something that helps other people or other beings that is dharma or Cho Jay. Say I give handful of sunflower seeds to a squirrel or give a handful of nuts to the goat and the goat is hungry that is dharma practice. Anything that you do that helps somebody is dharma.
GA: Anything that you do that is helpful and beneficial to others is dharma practice. That’s a really good definition, everyone can relate to that. But what makes it spiritual? I don’t understand what you mean by spiritual?
ZTR: Spiritual from my point of view, or from our Buddhist point of view, means that you do something, which helps other people. Whatever you do that eliminates suffering or liberates someone from minor or temporary suffering or major suffering is what I mean by spiritual. Spiritual practice does not have to be some very magical or mystical thing, you know, that makes a connection with ‘up there’ or some god or the almighty god or the Buddha.
GA: The common idea that most people have in mind when they use the word spiritual is something ‘out there’ some otherworldly thing. You are using spiritual in the sense of doing something selfless. So that’s what you mean by spiritual?
ZTR: Yeh that’s what I mean.
GA: Spiritual things are often related to things like praying, praying to a god.
ZTR: That is a misunderstanding I think. Praying to a god is religion. Some people think that being spiritual and being religious is the same thing. Some people think that in order to be spiritual there has to be some religious flavour; otherwise it is not spiritual. You can be a spiritual person but you don’t have to be religious.
GA: There are a whole range of activities that can be called dharma practice that can just be simple things like feeding a bird or a goat, if they are hungry, or whatever, right up to doing high tantric practice, because really involved tantric practice, is in a sense helping other beings as well, but it’s a different form of helping. So what you are saying is, the question that helps us to get to the essence of dharma or spiritual practice, is, how do I help another being?
ZTR: Sure. There is a Tibetan saying for what dharma is Yen Tempeh Cho Jay chi, which means: “if you do something beneficial for others, that is the definition of dharma.” One time I was talking to my nephew. I was very happy and very inspired by what he said. He said to me, “Uncle I am very spiritual but I am not religious”. Then I said to him, “What do you mean you are very spiritual” He said, “I do believe dharma or the principle of dharma or the essence of dharma, but I don’t do religion. I don’t go to the temple and I don’t do prostrations and mantras like other Tibetans do.” Then he said, “When I go out with girls or other young people who are very religious, I can’t relate to them because they are too religious. I feel that I don’t fit with these people because they are too religious.”
GA: If the essence of dharma practice is doing something beneficial for others, the implication of that is that you can see what other people need and require; that you want to do it; that you have compassion; and that you are sensitive enough to them. That is the implication of what you are saying. You are able to see others’ suffering and you want to help. If you don’t have that you can’t practice the dharma properly. If you tell someone, ‘Look the essence of dharma is to be beneficial and help others’ and they say ‘Oh Rinpoche is my guru. Rinpoche is my guru. Rinpoche told me to help other people, and I just go and help other people. I don’t see what they need.’ That’s not dharma practice.
ZTR: No but at least he is doing what I told him to do so he is helping in that way.
GA: He is helping you.
ZTR: I’m doing something good for them. In that way we are helping. I see there are people who do religious things Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Some of them have very strong religious feelings, but they are not really interested in helping other people or animals.
GA: They might just be interested in a religious career.
ZTR: Or it is their insurance policy. They want a guarantee for happiness in this life and a long life and then when they die they want a guaranteed place in the pure lands. They think, ‘I want take my family or my backpack. I want to be happy up there. That’s why I am doing these prayers and sadhanas.”
GA: Theoretically you could be a tantric practitioner without a dharma motivation.
ZTR: Then that’s not dharma.
GA: But theoretically you could do that.
ZTR: Yeh you can do that. I have seen people doing it. You could be a so-called ‘tantric practitioner’ where you know all the rituals; you know so many things. But the question is, and I am not judging this person, I can’t judge, but it is possible, the question is, I am not sure that the person is really spiritual or Buddhist or not.
GA: You can be spiritual and religious or you can be spiritual and not religious, or you can be only religious and not spiritual. If someone is practicing religion and not being spiritual they have turned religion into a material thing like spiritual materialism.
ZTR: For some people religion is one way of making a living, one way of becoming rich, or one way of making yourself famous or living an interesting life, or becoming popular.
GA: This is also related to the idea that you can be spiritual and not even call yourself a Buddhist and you can be practicing the dharma and not call yourself a Buddhist.
ZTR: It is possible that you are a really spiritual being or real spiritual person and you don’t call yourself a Buddhist. You may not even call yourself a spiritual person. You are just doing it.