Meeting Obstacles on the Path: Signs of Progress!

Tibetan Buddhism has always recognised the importance of providing pragmatic advice for our difficulties in terms of both our practice and our everyday life. This type of help is kept alive by our own Lamas both in their teaching and personal communication with us.  In this way we have a great resource for dealing with those times when we have become despondent about how things are going for us in dharma and life in general. Applying the teachings to our situation, though, is an ongoing process as we are challenged by various circumstances. In doing so, our preconceptions and expectations about Buddhism are also directly confronted. Nevertheless students took heart from teachings Lama Jampa gave this January based on Chogyal Phagpa’s text, ‘Garland of Jewels’.

When we first encounter dharma, hear some teachings and begin to practise meditation, there is a great sense of the promise of finding peace and contentment. Hearing about blessings of the buddhas and the importance of having confidence and faith, we may think that some supernatural being or saviour will intervene in our lives and make everything perfect for us! However, as our practice develops it seems inevitable that obstacles and difficulties are going to crop up.

We probably don’t expect that things could suddenly start to seem a lot worse than they had done a short time before. As it turns out, that’s what happens from time to time. It’s not that there is something hopeless about oneself or that something has started to go wrong on one’s spiritual journey. Experiences of apparent set-backs are completely routine for someone who has genuinely engaged on the spiritual path.

It was very encouraging for us to hear this from Lama Jampa’s teaching of Chogyal Phagpa’s text. In fact, we learned, perhaps even more surprisingly, that encountering obstacles can be signs of progress! How so?

The dharma path is known as a path of awakening. As well as awakening to the potential for enlightenment there is also the gradual apprehension of habits of mind and negative tendencies that, through unawareness, have been established over lifetimes but not seen clearly hitherto.

As Lama Jampa explained,

“Over many lifetimes we have created a world around us that is in harmony with negativities. In terms of our relationships, social setting and our world as a whole.”

As we open our eyes more and more to what lies behind our own individual emotional landscape, aspects of “ourselves” begin to reveal themselves in a way that can surprise and shock us. We begin to see that we are dealing with lifetimes of karmic imprints.

The magnitude of our spiritual endeavour gradually dawns. Its essence is the work in turning around of karmic forces that have dominated, not just within our own limited lifespans but across lives. So it is hardly surprising that there will be hardships and challenges as there inevitably are in any great endeavour.  

Lama Jampa pointed out in his teaching that we need not be shocked or disappointed when confronted such difficulties, but come to see it as indeed beneficial that they have come to the surface now. It is a blessing for negative karma to ripen more quickly in the context of our dharma practice than to lay hidden with the potential to cause harm in less auspicious and viable circumstances when we may be less able to cope.

We now see that what we had perceived as setbacks are actually an integral part of the business of practising dharma: the ripening of karmic forces within our mind-stream. So we realise that it is necessary to build on spiritual resources within ourselves so that we are equipped to counter that kind of negativity. This is where “merit” comes into play. Merit is not any kind of brownie point or badge of virtue to wear and show off, but is a practical store-house of spiritual resources we build up, to apply when needed to counter negativity. We are always well advised by wise and compassionate masters that the time to accumulate merit is whenever we feel able to do so. It is said that there is no limit to how much merit will be of value to us as a resource in the future.

Clearly, it is going to take effort to apply the forces of merit from our practice to overcome negativity. The incentive to apply ourselves with effort comes from seeing that the essential point of dharma practice is to remove obstacles and negativity that cover our buddha nature. This enables natural qualities of wisdom and compassion to reveal themselves.

In one of the verses of his ‘Garland of Jewels’ Phagpa says:

“Hardship is necessary to increase one’s lifespan,
           one’s wealth and one’s dharma practice.

If any of these are not going well, overcome the difficulty with effort.”

So to sum up, Lama Jampa, like all those great masters before him, advises us to expend effort in accumulating merit and effort in applying that merit to counter the effects of the ripening of negative karma. In this way we will be able to overcome difficulties and strengthen our dharma practice along with other aspects of our life.

As Patrul Rinpoche famously said,

“Dharma belongs to those who make an effort in it.”

Lama Jampa will be teaching the second of three parts of the text by Chogyal Phagpa,  in Bristol on 8th June. Find details of this teaching event here.