Discover more from The Dalai Lama's Cat & Other Intrigues by David Michie
Is it too late to start Buddhist practice?
Several of you have asked me this question in recent weeks. When a few people raise an identical query it’s safe to assume that many others are wondering the same thing. Because it’s such an important subject, I believe that it deserves its own post. Before answering this question directly, I’d like to share my own personal experience.
Too late in my 30s!
Strange as it may seem, when I encountered Buddhism in my 30s, I wondered if it was already too late for me. By then I felt clear about who I was and where I was going. I had a busy life including family and financial commitments. I had structure and order in my world because that’s how I like it.
Much as I was drawn to various aspects of Buddhism, beneath the gentle meditation sessions and the talk of loving kindness I realised that the Dharma is radical. It made me question everything about my world view and what was important. Having felt so settled about my ambitions, I wondered if all the revolutionary ideas might be better left until a future lifetime when I could start afresh, free of all my convictions about this one.
I also felt somewhat overwhelmed. Intellectually, our core text, the Lam Rim, is a textbook of 1,000 pages, and it seemed that being familiar with it was important. Plus understanding key points of other texts by Indians and Tibetans with all the cultural decoding required.
Practically, I found meditation a real challenge. I had been sitting for 15 minutes each morning as part of my stress-management routine. But this really didn’t prepare me for the eight hours of meditation daily on retreat. My back was so sore that I was soon the guy at the back of the gompa leaning against the wall for support and constantly shifting because I had so much pain in my legs. Seeing other students glide effortlessly onto their cushions and stay there for an hour at a time without apparent discomfort also made me question if this was something I was cut out for.
And then there were the commitments! In Tibetan Buddhism we have the sutra and tantra traditions, with the latter well known as the fast track to enlightenment. And who doesn’t want instant gratification? The challenge is that tantra involves learning a whole new inner language and demands commitments to repeat sadhanas – sets of practices to be read and visualised – and the recitation of mantras on a daily basis. Too much already!
The role of the teacher
The reason I didn’t abandon the Dharma was because of my wonderful teacher, Les Sheehy, who always emphasizes the importance of starting where you are. Engaging with what you find useful and setting aside what you don’t. Not seeking to change your outer world, but rather your heart and mind. Buddhism may be revolutionary, but it is an inner revolution we seek. And the recommended approach is gentle and to an intriguing degree, self-revealing.
You don’t have to be an academic to study the Dharma – just be present to the teachings. Allow them to soak into you and it’s interesting how quickly they become familiar. Similarly, it’s normal to struggle with longer meditation sessions when you start. Just keep doing them and, step by step, they move from gruelling to more bearable, to okay, to sometimes better than okay, to usually quite pleasant, to … you get the picture. “With acquaintance,” our precious lama Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden often used to say, “everything becomes easier.”
A well-known quote of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is: “life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward.” Turning directly to the question ‘is it too late to start Dharma practice?’, I asked myself how I would respond if a 30-year-younger version of myself asked me, the older David, if it was too late. What would I say to him? And how might my response be relevant to you, my readers, of all ages?
Starting something new or coming home?
The first thing I would put to the younger me is to question the idea that one is ‘starting’ anything at all. Tibetan Buddhism is very marginal in the West. Let’s be frank, hardly anyone is really interested in it. But for some reason we are. Not only that. We may already have an intuitive sense that for us, it offers a coherent explanation of why things are the way they are and what to do about them.
Many of us share the same conviction that the life we currently experience isn’t some random, isolated, fleeting event, but is rather part of a broader canvas, a longer flow of consciousness. So, if we, as Westerners, are drawn to something as apparently arcane as Tibetan Buddhism, might it not be logical to deduce that there’s a reason for it? Is it not possible and even likely that we have had contact with the tradition in the past?
If the Dharma is resonating with us, my own feeling is that it’s probably not the first time we have been around this particular block. We are not so much starting something as rediscovering it. Reawakening to a dimension of our being that, for whatever reason, remained dormant or out of view for a long period of time. And yet here we are. Like itinerants wandering through the night forest, we have seen a light in the darkness and as we draw closer, it turns out to be coming from the window of our very own home. How fortunate are we?!
Never underestimate what’s possible
A second thing I’d tell the younger me, is not to underestimate what’s possible, or the opportunity you have here and now. The teachings, practices and commitments of the Dharma may seem overwhelming, but as we become more familiar, we may be surprised how much we already have available to us.
Following on from the previous point, what if in a past life we were practitioners who created the causes for wonderful insights, support and advancement? Karma increases does it not? It isn’t static, but a dynamic potentiality in our consciousness, multiplying constantly. Karma is also like a seed requiring conditions to germinate. When we begin to practise Dharma in this lifetime, we create the conditions for previously created causes to ripen and flourish.
We have no idea what causes we may have created, but nor should we underestimate them. What’s more, although the Dharma may seem overwhelming to begin with, as we become more familiar we’re able to see through all the practices, texts and commitments to what really matters. Buddha himself summarised this as: “Abandon harmfulness. Cultivate goodness. Subdue your mind.”
Basically, be a decent person, work on your meditation and try to get your head around shunyata. And while a full-blown, non-conceptual experience of shunyata is what we’re ultimately aiming at, even a conceptual understanding is a game changer. One of my favourite quotes from Aryadeva is that “even merely the suspicion (that things aren’t the way they appear) will shatter cyclic existence.” This is something we can all realistically hope to achieve.
The opportunity presented by this lifetime, however long we have left, is not to be undervalued. Buddha himself said that to be born as a human being with an interest in the Dharma is as unlikely as a blind, crippled turtle that comes to the surface of the ocean once every hundred years just happening to stick his head through a golden yoke floating on the water. The golden yoke, in this metaphor, means the Dharma, and the likelihood of being drawn to it is therefore almost impossible in its rarity.
For every day that we draw breath, we have the opportunity to abandon harmfulness, cultivate goodness and subdue our mind. Masters through the ages have all observed that we’d find it impossible to comprehend the amount of merit we can create by a single act of generosity motivated by bodhichitta. And each one of us has plenty of exactly such opportunities every day.
The real question is not, therefore, ‘am I too late?’ as ‘why would I not take advantage of this priceless opportunity?’
The big event is yet to come
A third, important point is worth making. One that applies to all of us, and is arguably of growing relevance the older we get: the biggest event of our inner life is still ahead of us. If we still have a pulse, the major transition is yet to come.
A peaceful death is among the most valuable gifts we can offer any living being, ourselves included. And with a little effort and application we can aim for more than only this. If we go into the death process with an understanding of what to expect, we are far more likely to be able to make the most of it, in the same way that someone who has made extensive inquiries about a vacation destination is more likely to have a great experience when they get there than a traveller who is bundled onto the plane without a clue about where they’re headed.
The state of mind we have cultivated, the degree of our mental quiescence, and our understanding of shunyata serve us not only in life, but also in death – as I wrote about a few months ago when reviewing Lama Tulku Thondup’s most useful book on the death process- https://davidmichie.substack.com/p/all-we-need-to-know-about-death-bardo.
To quote Lama Thondup: “Though attaining enlightenment during the passage of ultimate nature requires advanced esoteric meditative training, even modest familiarity with the nature of mind can help us during this passage. We could have flickers of realizing the truth. Although this will not translate into liberation, the power of having even a brief experience of the true nature and its visions will greatly ease our fears and pains as we progress through the bardo. It will bring peace and joy, create meritorious karma and lead us toward a better future life.”
So, not only is it not too late, it is time to open our eyes to our very rare karmic status, to trust our intuition if we find aspects of the Dharma resonating with us, and to make the very most of what is an extraordinary and precious opportunity.
You and I, dear subscribers, are not ordinary people. We might look and sound the same as others. We may not have done a great deal, in worldly terms, that makes us stand out from the crowd. But our karma is what sets us apart - and ultimately that matters more than anything. Recognising this, let’s not allow our life and death to be ordinary either.
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And from Wales, UK, here’s a beautiful, real life story I’d like to share about how a dog helped her owner find a matching kidney donor in the most unexpected way. For the BBC article and short video click here.