The Dharma-Driven Life
Dharma—the virtuous path—means more than accepting the beliefs of a specific religion. To understand and fulfill our true dharma, we must learn how to cultivate a tranquil mind and a compassionate heart.
By Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
In January 2001, I had the privilege of introducing His Holiness the Dalai Lama to a grand audience of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs. This happened during the Kumbha Mela on the bank of the holy Ganga on the outskirts of Allahabad in North India. In the company of two prominent religious leaders, Swami Avadheshanand and Pilot Baba, and a small group of dignitaries, we were seated on a stage in front of about 40,000 people, including 500 Western guests and students of the Himalayan Institute. When I finished my inaugural speech, His Holiness took the microphone and a pin-drop silence settled over the crowd.
With folded hands, His Holiness greeted the audience and recited a prayer for the peace and welfare of mankind. Then, in his typical style, he made a few jokes, cleared his throat, and began speaking about the essence of dharma. He explained that compassion is the core of dharma—and that selfless service is the way to practice dharma in your daily life. When you embrace all and exclude none, love all and hate none, selfless service becomes a natural part of your life, he said. Your inner conflicts and restlessness melt away. You become established in peace, and this peace begins to fill your surroundings. You are no longer a source of fear for others, and others are no longer a source of fear for you. This is how you create paradise here and now. He explained that all the great religions of the world have the same goal: to create a peaceful atmosphere within and without.
At the end of this short discourse, His Holiness invited questions from the audience. A gentleman said, “I understand Buddhism does not believe in God. What is your opinion about God? Does God exist or not?” With childlike innocence, His Holiness laughed, grabbed the hands of the two spiritual leaders on either side of him, lifted them in the air, fixed his gaze on the audience, and said emphatically, “God exists or God does not exist. Leave it for us. Your task is to learn how to live peacefully.”
I do not know how many in the audience understood the depth of this answer, but I was awestruck. In his voice I heard the message of the ancient sages: Dharmo rakshati rakshitah (Protect dharma and dharma will protect you; nurture dharma and dharma will nurture you).
We follow our religion, and we consider it our duty. We discharge our religious duty by keeping God at the center of our faith. We all agree that God is our provider and protector, but we do not agree that your God is the same as my God or that he/she is the protector, provider, and guide of us all. This clearly shows how poor our understanding of God is. Our deep attachment to that poor understanding has led us into countless wars and caused unimaginable bloodshed. Only when society as a whole is experiencing unbearable pain do we begin to ponder the essence of religion and its ageless message: “Protect dharma and dharma will protect you; nurture dharma and dharma will nurture you.”
To help us understand what dharma is and the true meaning and intent of this ageless message, I will retell the story of one of the great souls who set the wheel of dharma in motion a little more than 2,500 years ago: Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha of our era.
The life of this North Indian prince was one of extremes. Although royal, he was born under a tree when his mother was traveling to her father’s palace. As she was dying in childbirth surrounded by a grieving retinue, gods descended from heaven to rejoice in his long-awaited incarnation. As he grew, Siddhartha excelled in martial arts, weaponry, politics, commerce, and the art of ruling a kingdom. He was carefully insulated from any sight of suffering. Dance, women, and wine filled his evenings, yet the first time he saw a sick person, a person inflicted with old age, and the body of a dead man, he renounced the comforts of the palace and set out to understand the full range of life’s contrasts and complexities.
Siddhartha’s voracious appetite for learning led him from ashram to ashram and from teacher to teacher. He studied a broad range of traditions, and then put his knowledge into practice by committing himself to intense meditation. Eventually he attained nirvana, a state of enlightenment filled with compassion and wisdom—a state of total clarity and peace. From that time on, people honored him as Buddha, the Enlightened One.
Now the Enlightened One returned to the world, paradoxically becoming more active than he had been as a prince. He traveled and gave discourses. For all intents and purposes, his was the life of a spiritually enlightened leader. He led a movement that came to be known as dharma-chakra-pravartana (the rolling out of the wheel of dharma). All the while, he refrained from speaking about ten topics, including the subject of God.
Why did Buddha, who is regarded as a divine incarnation, carefully refrain from involving himself in discussions about God? During his lifetime, India possessed thousands of scriptures. Many were believed to be living revelations. All proclaimed God’s existence and delineated methods for reaching God and receiving his grace. And yet society was torn by strife. The exploitative nature of religion was as damaging as it was to become in the West during the Middle Ages. People believed in God, but that belief did not make them free from fear and doubt. People believed that God was one and all-pervading, yet that belief did not lead them to experience their underlying unity. People believed God was an embodiment of love and compassion, yet that belief did not stop them from embracing hatred and cruelty.
Prince Siddhartha grew up surrounded by these lofty beliefs and their contradictions. In his early adulthood he began pondering why individuals and society were drowning in darkness. Then he went a step further and worked hard to discover the cause of human misery for himself. This led him to renounce his palace, the kingdom, and all the honor and prestige that were his birthright. At the dawn of enlightenment, it became clear to him that mere belief in God does not automatically make us good, and that lack of such beliefs do not automatically make us bad. Mere belief does not take away our doubts and fears. Mere belief does not stop us from being negative and destructive. To have a positive effect, belief must be grounded in the direct experience of the truth. Direct experience requires a clear, calm, and tranquil mind, and this mind has to be turned inward. Turning it inward requires practice, and this practice is called sadhana.
Siddhartha committed himself to sadhana. This enabled him to cultivate a clear, calm, and tranquil mind, and eventually, with that mind he discovered his own inner being. This self-discovery is called enlightenment. It is a matter of direct experience. In that state of enlightenment, did he see himself? Did he see God? Did he come to know the source of the universe? Buddha did not consider such questions as important as the understanding that there is sorrow in the world, and sorrow can and must be eradicated. He emphasized practices for cultivating a clear, calm, and tranquil mind, and he emphasized the importance of cultivating a compassionate heart. He proclaimed that through methodical practice, one acquires clarity of mind (prajna) and the virtue of compassion (karuna). Prajna and karuna are inherent virtues of enlightenment. Sorrow and the subtle causes of sorrow come to an end once and for all as a result of enlightenment. Therefore, Buddha called enlightenment nirvana, the state of illumination free from sorrow.
Hundreds of sages who lived before Buddha attained enlightenment and taught their fellow beings the essence of dharma. But with the passage of time, layers of custom, superstition, dogma, prejudice, and lifeless rituals obscured those teachings. As blind beliefs replaced practices, the society became divorced from the transformative power of the teachings of the enlightened ones. Buddha revived those teachings. During the 40 years after his enlightenment, he lived the life of a karma yogi. He dedicated every breath to the welfare of others. The result? A movement began—a movement toward personal transformation and the revitalization of society.
This movement brought enlightenment within individuals as well as enlightenment in the external world. Those who were part of the great movement gained a direct experience of the mind as the cause of both bondage and liberation. The mind constitutes our private world. A mind filled with animosity manufactures enemies in the external world, and a mind filled with love and compassion fills the world with friends: as we think, so we become. That is why the scriptures say, “Upon protection of the mind, the whole world is protected, and upon its destruction, the whole world is destroyed.” Cultivating a virtuous mind, therefore, is our dharma.
Human history shows us that as long as we were able to cultivate and sustain a virtuous mind we were protected and nurtured. We lived peacefully and happily, with or without a belief in a particular god or goddess. We were able to uphold the honor and dignity of our family, community, culture, and religion without tarnishing others. We were protected from our inner enemies: anger, hatred, jealousy, and greed. Inner freedom gave us the opportunity to create a peaceful society.
The history of India is a living testimony to the power of inner peace. From the time of Buddha in the 5th century BCE, all the way to the 5th century CE, people were able to hear, heed, and practice dharma in their daily lives. During the course of those 10 centuries, the wave of armies sweeping across India—led by Huns, Kushans, Kambojs, and the rulers of Asia Minor, among others—were peacefully welcomed and absorbed. Only when people forgot the essence of dharma and began to live painfully with their own divided and tormented minds did they fail to coexist with their own fellow beings.
Fractured minds built a fractured society. The India that had been a melting pot invested its energies in building walls between different groups: Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, and hundreds of others. In other words, when dharma declined, illiteracy, poverty, inequality, racial discrimination, and the oppression of women sapped the vitality of their society. This happened in other parts of the world as well as in India.
Look at the condition of the world around us today. See how unclear we are about our dharma, how consistently we fail to practice it, and the effect this failure has on us at both the personal and the collective levels. We have more objects in our possession than our ancestors ever dreamed of. We are bigger and fatter in every respect. Everything is big—big churches, big corporations, big cities, and big, wealthy people. We hardly notice that next to all this is another set of “bigs”—big anger, big hatred, big greed, big possessiveness, and big violence.
The gap between the rich and the poor becomes wider every day. The rich get richer while more than a billion people live in abject poverty. Wealthy people dress themselves in designer clothes and dine in posh restaurants, while millions, especially the young people of Southeast Asia, are sold into slavery and prostitution. In Africa, millions of children roam all day in search of food, scavenging and digging up banana roots and other plants.
We see these extremes all around us, but it never occurs to us that it is these very extremes that give birth to extremists. When terrorist attacks in New York and Mumbai shock the world, we gather our forces to hunt down terrorists. As a short-term solution, that may be the right course, but we must not forget the truth that inner unrest contributes to external chaos, while inner peace restores peace in the external world. Cultivating a peaceful mind is the only way to live a peaceful life. Cultivating such a mind constitutes the core of our dharma.
The dharma of the 21st century demands that we first make a qualitative change in our minds, infusing them with the higher virtues of love and compassion, giving and sharing. This is called cultivating a virtuous mind. It presupposes that we keep our greed in check. We must control our lust for power and possession. And we have to open our minds and hearts to a proven reality: there is a collective consciousness and we are part of it. Collective consciousness is inside of us and we are inside of it. This interconnectivity gives rise to the reality that what we do to others is what we do to ourselves. This is the law of karma—an unavoidable law that ensures that as we sow, so shall we reap. Practicing dharma requires that we keep this immutable law in the forefront of our minds and treat others the way we want to be treated.
Hindus have been waiting for Lord Vishnu to incarnate as Kalki to fix the world in their favor. Buddhists are waiting for the pending incarnation of Maitreya, the next Buddha. Christians are waiting for the second coming of Jesus. Yet if we create a virtuous mind and fill this world with the virtues of love and compassion, these great incarnations will walk into our lives while we are here on earth, and we will be the recipients of their loving grace. Mere waiting won’t do. What is required is a sincere commitment to personal transformation. It all begins with the recognition of our personal dharma and the determination to practice it in our daily life.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD, is the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute. A teacher, lecturer, Sanskrit scholar, and author, he has practiced yoga for more than 30 years.
To watch highlights from Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s and the Dalai Lama’s speeches at the Kumbha Mela, click here.