Filed in Tibetan

Tortoise Steps

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

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TortoisePracticing dharma is necessarily a frustrating business. What practitioners, especially beginners, often fail to realize is that frustrations are the signposts of our success. An exasperating lack of concentration, devotion, or inspiration might be just what you need to make the extra effort to tune in to your practice fully. Alternatively, of course, it may topple you in the other direction and stop you practicing altogether—a temptation you must resist at all costs. Always remember, though, that frustration with your spiritual path is often an indication that you are becoming a genuine dharma practitioner.

The key is consistency. Often what happens is that in the heat of inspiration practitioners overdose on practice, then feel deeply frustrated when they fail to experience a good dream, or cannot concentrate properly or control their temper. Having gorged themselves on practice, they stop for a few months, and when they eventually return to it they are right back at square one. At this rate, progress is slow. A far better approach is that of the tortoise. Each step may seem to take forever, but no matter how uninspired you feel, continue to follow your practice schedule precisely and consistently. This is how we can use our greatest enemy, habit, against itself. Habit clings to us like a bloodsucking leech, becoming more rigid and stubborn by the moment, and even if we manage to flick it off, we are still left with an itchy reminder of its existence. By becoming accustomed to regular dharma practice, though, we use our enemy against itself by countering our bad habits with the good habit of practice. And as Shantideva pointed out, nothing is difficult once you get used to it.

Adapted from Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse © 2012. Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications.

Illustration by Mike Taylor.

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I view my diet in this way having recently become a vegetarian. While my record has not been perfect in eating meat this year I have not shopped for any. I may fall short in the whole environmental discussion. When I started practice I was searching for a more natural orientation. I have found it in practice, while I have been given some understanding of the eight fold path from the Reverand Taschamund. I do not know how to cling any less, other than in consideration of all the attachments I have had to let go of, within the path I have chosen for myself, which is to make my life a vehicle and a catalyst for change, a revolution, and a revelation.

oliverhow's picture

Thank you for this very honest and sincere post...there is a lot of teaching in it....richard

alalaho's picture

I noticed a friend last night at our meditation group reading this book at the break. It was a book I had given him a few months ago. Another friend, who I had also given a copy to, also noticed and a short discussion began about the book. I loved the book. For me, a good kick in the ass when needed. For my friends, a little bit of a demanding read. The title itself shatters whatever grand illusions we have of a spiritual practice. Not for Happiness. Happiness seekers need not apply. But as my teacher said last night, relative happiness. Conditioned happiness. So, for awakening, for enlightenment, for the benefit of beings, should be, I believe, our motivation. Our intention. It is mine for sure. And still a work in progress. My teacher Shamar Rinpoche, a great master who we lost last year, said this to me many years ago when he noticed my urgency in wanting results from practice, "Be like the tortoise, not the rabbit." I have cherished that teaching ever since. It continually reminds me that it is not necessarily speed, but consistent determination that will benefit us on the path. I also realized this morning that Rinpoche was advising me in the ways of a bodhisattva.

Shantideva says,

"For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge."

Even a turtle.

Sarva Mangalam

fmart's picture

I appreciate very much John Haspel's thoughtful and detailed reply to the short article by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. His emphasis on drawing from the vast repertoire of practices and instructions from the Buddha's discourses is itself skillful, especially:

“Right Effort is generating the skillful desire, actions and diligence to: Avoid inappropriate thoughts, words and deeds that have yet arisen; Abandon inappropriate thoughts, words and deeds that have arisen; Develop appropriate thoughts, words and deeds that have yet arisen; Maintain appropriate thoughts, words and deeds for continual development of non-confusion and skillful qualities that have arisen. (Samyutta Nikaya 45.8)

Thank you for this fundamental reminder !

John Haspel's picture

The Buddha taught an Eightfold Path to overcome any frustration arising from Dhamma practice. Developing understanding within the framework of the Eightfold Path also brings consistency generated not through the grim determination of breaking a habit that “clings to us like a bloodsucking leach” but through gentleness and mudita. “Mudita” is the great joy that arises from knowing that the Eightfold Path will bring release from the frustration that arises from continued clinging to objects and ideas.

When speaking to his son the Buddha taught Rahula that “In thought, word and deed act with the skill that arises from the Eightfold Path and be joyful in your skillful thoughts, in your skillful words and in your skillful deeds. Let joy and Right Effort direct your practice.”

From Right View, grounded in a mundane understanding of the Four Noble Truths, Right Intention develops. Right Intention is being mindful of abandoning all causes of stress. Holding the intention to abandon clinging, the virtuous factors of the path develop. Being mindful of, and abandoning, all that is not Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, clinging begins to diminish.

As clinging begins to diminish, a practice of developing heightened concentration becomes effective. Right Effort is the first of the three factors of heightened concentration. It is Right Effort that provides the initial understanding that brings joy and consistency to dhamma practice. As concentration deepens, more subtle aspects of clinging become apparent.

The Buddha describes Right Effort:
“Right Effort is generating the skillful desire, actions and diligence to: Avoid inappropriate thoughts, words and deeds that have yet arisen; Abandon inappropriate thoughts, words and deeds that have arisen; Develop appropriate thoughts, words and deeds that have yet arisen; Maintain appropriate thoughts, words and deeds for continual development of non-confusion and skillful qualities that have arisen. (Samyutta Nikaya 45.8)

Right View emphasizes the importance of abandoning non-virtuous acts. Holding Right View is understanding that it is by strong attachment to the ego-personality that frustration and non-virtuous acts occur. As current non-virtuous behavior is abandoned, virtuous behavior can be developed further. Through mindful awareness of  what is to be developed and what is to be abandoned, appropriate thoughts, words and deeds are now the foundation for continued Right Effort and deepening joy.

This is a specific application of mindfulness that is developed and maintained throughout the Buddha’s original teachings. Being mindful of what is to be abandoned and what is to be developed is the essence of Right Mindfulness.

Right Effort is one factor (of eight) in developing the path of liberation and freedom from the confusion of dukkha. It is part of a cohesive method of understanding The Four Noble Truths. Dhamma practice begins at the point of accepting the First Noble Truth, the Truth of dukkha. From this initial Right View, acceptance of the necessity to change views becomes apparent to continue the Eightfold Path. Right Intention follows to bring to mind the resistance to changing views that conditioned thinking maintains and the resolve to abandon clinging. It takes mindful and joyful focus to overcome the effects of the confusion and distraction that the ego-personality has developed.

Right Effort will develop the qualities needed for liberation from dukkha. This should not be taken as a harsh judgement on past behavior. With the perspective of Right View, Right Effort is an intentional change in the way one’s thoughts, words and deeds affect development of understanding. Right Effort is the mindful turning point from conditioned reaction to the people and events of life, including one’s self. Right Effort develops a mindful and skillful presence arising from developing wisdom.

The Eightfold Path is not a sequential training, beginning at Right View and ending at Right Meditation. The foundation of understanding begins with Right View and progresses through the next seven factors.

As understanding develops, all eight factors of the path are integrated as one dhamma practice.

The Eightfold Path is a cohesive practice of developing heightened wisdom, virtue and concentration. Right Effort also refers to the practical engagement of the remaining two concentration factors of Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation.

The Buddha again describes (succinctly) Right Effort:
“Abandon what is unskillful and develop what is skillful. If it were not possible to abandon what is unskillful and develop what is skillful, I would not teach this. If it were harmful to abandon what is unskillful and develop what is skillful, I would not teach this. Apply your efforts to develop what is skillful.” (Anguttara Nikaya 2.19)

Understanding Right Effort avoids “overdosing on practice.” Lacking the framework of the Eightfold Path can easily lead to “gorging” on extraneous practices that develop additional frustrations leading to interruption in dhamma practice.

The focus of thoughts determine experience. Thoughts preoccupied with clinging, craving and aversion will lead to more confusion and suffering. Thoughts concentrated on mindfulness of the dhamma will bring liberation and freedom. Distracted thoughts focussed on fleeting desires, achievements and aversions can only lead to more confusion and stress.  Thoughts that establish and reinforce the ego-personality can only lead to more frustration and more confusion and stress for the ego-personality.

The Buddha taught a simple and direct path that anyone could engage with and put aside all unskillful habits gently and with the joy of knowing an authentic path to liberation and freedom.

John Haspel

Sanki's picture

While all this is true, it is good to develop the habit of practice...especially a daily meditation practice. Thank you for your important reminder of the tathagatha's words. Sometimes, we just have to 'do it' and when 'doing it' becomes a habit we are well on our way. Gassho,

fbartolom's picture

In fact it beats me why people stop meditating after they have begun. It would be like stopping to breath after having been born! So I am left nearly wordless when people complian about their irregular practice. So such a short essay could be a valid help indeed.

john08's picture

This is by far and away the best advice any new practitioner can receive. Thank you for sharing it!

wideawake's picture

Very helpful reminder. Prompted me to read the book. Twice, so far! Slices through many illusions, with humor.