In the everyday view, acting externally is what counts: internal mental attention is seen as merely serving external material needs. But in Dharma, reversing this logic and “pointing inwards” is seen to be of greater ultimate value. Action is not unimportant, but its value lies in serving our mental clarity. This is but one example of a general principle of “pointing inwards” to see the truth.
Karma means “action”, and is a key element of Dharma understanding and practice. Why? Because action reinforces the mental imprint of our intention. If passing thoughts are like writing on water, and speaking them is like writing in sand, then acting upon them is like writing in stone. We need great care in deciding which of our intentions are to be acted upon.
Actions carry great weight then, but their most critical effect is upon our minds – their results in the external world are quite secondary and unpredictable.
the point of actions is to purify the mind
What if we cannot express a beneficial intention in material action? There are many situations in which we feel compassion yet feel powerless to act: sometimes situations are too big or too distant so that any act would seem insignificant, sometimes we lack time, money, energy, or ability. And if a physical act would seem pitifully small, how much less a mental one would be… in the mundane view at least.
This is where Dharma takes the other view. What goes on in our minds is of great value, in fact in the end it is the ultimate value.
The materialist world-view regards people as separate individuals, their separate bodies holding separate minds. If I am separate from others, what goes on in my mind is private, and only affects others if echoed in external action.
By this logic, a Buddhist who spends years in meditation retreat would seem selfish. How is this supposed to benefit others? When will this mental investment pay off in practical action in the world?
Making a comparison with medical training, a greater investment of time would bring a deeper reward in terms of expertise, and a lifetime spent in cancer research might be expected to yield a huge eventual benefit – though still only when translated into direct practical action.
And even then, a cure for cancer is a limited aim. Buddhists take a longer view, in fact a boundless one. Their ultimate aim of the liberation from suffering of all beings cannot ever be attained by piecemeal physical acts performed within a single lifetime. The various forms of suffering are limitless, the only answer is to cut the root of all suffering.
There are many realisations on the route to seeing this as possible, requiring counter-intuitive views such as the interpenetration of minds, the illusory nature of bodies, and the four liberating certainties — of unsatisfactoriness, its root cause, the possibility of its abandonment, and the means to manifest this. These are realisations of mind, not short-term material changes in the external world. And the basis of everyone’s suffering lies in the mind, not in changeable physical circumstances.
Awareness as like a sky covering all of us
Do we really think that our minds have no effect upon others? When a friend suffers, we feel it ourselves – actually when we are aware of anyone suffering we feel it. When we wish for their suffering to end, do we feel that they are unaffected by this? Suppose we were to see Awareness as like a sky covering all of us, with some light spots but often seeming rather dark: clouds of greed, war, intentional blindness to others, these are shadowing the sun. Would we not wish to brighten that sky, in however small a way?
If we could unveil our Buddha Nature, this would wield a potential which outshines any limited action towards one person in one place at one time. The cause of suffering is universal, the problem is not material, minds are not isolated. Changing our vision could have unlimited effects.
To find the truth, valuing the state of our mind above all else, we point inwards.
“If you want to reach everyone, that’s the way to go”
Lama Shenpen, 11 Aug 2018