Here, I want to suggest that to learn from the Buddha, in a practical context, primarily means to learn two aspects of the Dharma that ideally should run parallel. I will call these self-transformation and self-transcendence.
The final goal of the teaching, enlightenment or liberation, is attained through an act of self-transcendence, an act by which we step beyond the limits and boundaries of the conditioned mind and penetrate the unconditioned truth. This act is exercised by wisdom. However, liberating wisdom can arise only in a mind that is properly nurtured, and the process of nurturing the mind is the work of self-transformation.
Self-transformation means that we cultivate ourselves in order to progress step by step towards the arising of genuine wisdom. Self-transformation involves two processes: one is elimination; the other is development. I will briefly discuss each in turn.
"Elimination" means the removal of unwholesome qualities from our lives. It means the avoidance of unwholesome actions of body, speech, and mind; the control and subduing of unwholesome thoughts; the rejection of false views and deluded ideas. Just as a gardener who wants to develop a beautiful garden must first eliminate the weeds and rubbish, so we have to wipe out the weeds and rubbish from our minds.
In learning from the Buddha we are trying to understand ourselves, to understand our own minds. The Buddha holds up a mirror to our minds and hearts, showing us the defiled mental states that bring harm to us and to others. Thus, by studying the teachings of the Buddha, we gain a better understanding of our weaknesses, the defects we must strive to overcome.
(We also learn the methods to overcome them, for this is exactly the strength of the Buddha’s teaching: it gives us, with remarkable precision, the medicines to eliminate all the illnesses of our minds. What is so astounding in the early Buddhist teachings is their incredibly detailed insight into the human mind.
These teachings give us a different kind of psychological analysis than we encounter in western psychology. The aim here is not so much to restore pathologically disturbed people to what is considered a normal level of mental health, but to treat "normal people" so that they can rise above all the limitations and bonds of the normal mind and realize their hidden potential, the utterly purified and awakened mind.
This requires an entirely different approach, an approach that is the outstanding contribution of the Buddha to the understanding of human nature).
The Buddha offers us not only an analysis of our defects, but a catalogue of our potential strengths. He also teaches the means to make these potential strengths real and effective. He gives us an extraordinarily pragmatic teaching that we can apply to our everyday lives for rising step by step to the ultimate realization.
To move in this direction is the meaning of development. "Development" means the cultivation of wholesome qualities, the qualities that promote inner peace and happiness and make our lives effective channels for bringing peace and happiness to others.
The Buddha offers a wide range of such wholesome practices, ranging from basic ethical observances to such practices as the five spiritual faculties the Noble Eightfold Path, and the six or ten paramitas. To learn about these, we should study the Dharma extensively and in depth.
Then we should learn how to apply them to our own lives in the most realistic and beneficial manner. The second major process that we learn from the Buddha is self-transcendence. Though the Buddha speaks about eliminating unwholesome states and developing wholesome ones, he does not aim merely at making us happy and contented people within the mundane limits of the world.
He points us towards a transcendent goal; he leads us to the unconditioned reality, Nirvana, the calm and quiescent state beyond birth, old age, suffering, and death. This goal can be achieved only by a full and clear comprehension of the ultimate nature of things, the final mode of existence of all phenomena.
While this reality has to be penetrated by direct experience, we need specific guidelines to understand it. The goal itself transcends concepts and words, but the Buddha and the great Buddhist masters have provided us with a wide variety of "photographs" that give us glimpses into the real nature of things.
None of these "pictures" can capture it completely, but they do convey some idea of the things we should be looking for, the principles that we need to understand, and the goal towards which we should be aspiring.
To engage in a study of the principles relevant to self-transcendence is a philosophical enterprise, but this is not philosophy as mere idle speculation. For Buddhism, philosophy is an attempt to fathom the real nature of things, to use concepts and ideas to get a glimpse of the truth that liberates us, a truth that transcends all concepts and ideas. (Buddhist philosophy is a great stream flowing from the Buddha, continually refashioned and extended to bring to light the different facets of reality, to expose different aspects of a truth that can never be adequately captured by any system.
When we study Buddhist philosophy, we must always remember that these philosophical investigations are not undertaken merely to satisfy intellectual curiosity but to aid in the task of self-transcendence. They do this by pinpointing the nature of the wisdom we need to obliterate ignorance, the primary root of all bondage and suffering).
Learning the Buddha’s mind
I have been speaking about "learning from the Buddha" as if this always involves learning teachings explicitly recorded in texts. But that is only part of what learning from the Buddha involves. To learn from the Buddha means not only to study his words; it also means to learn from his conduct and his mind. Buddhist tradition has left us many records of the Buddha’s deeds in his lifetime in this world and in his previous lives, and these form a major part of the narrative heritage of Buddhism.
The life, conduct, and mind of the Buddha provide us with a model to emulate, the ideal standard that we, as followers of the Buddha, should try to embody in our own lives. The Buddha is the model of a human being who had been an ordinary person like us, but who had reached the pinnacle of human perfection.
To learn from the Buddha we should not only seek to find out what the Buddha taught. We should also try to mould our own lives in accordance with his qualities: his immaculate purity, his unhindered spiritual freedom, his great wisdom and compassion, his unshakeable peace and balance of mind.
To learn from the Buddha ultimately means that we learn to be ‘Buddha’, to become awakened human beings, pure, wise and compassionate, peaceful and magnanimous.
To advance at least a few steps in that direction should be our purpose in joining this Dharma Retreat.