Buddhist Talks

Last updated on December 4, 2007
Bringing the Dharma Back Home
by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The retreat is coming to an end and soon you’ll have to go home. But when you return home, don’t think that you have left your Dharma practice behind and won’t be able to take it up again until next year. Don’t divide your life into two compartments: into Dharma practice, which is something you do at the monastery, and worldly life, which is what you will face when you open the front door to your house. You have to bring together your Dharma practice and your life. It is when your life becomes full-bodied practice, and your practice is expressed in your daily life, that you have truly entered the path of Dharma practice in the proper sense.

The Buddha speaks of two kinds of good — one’s own good and the good of others — and he says that we enjoy the most meaningful life when we dedicate our efforts to fulfilling this two-fold good. So, in your day-to-day life, you must give attention both to achieving your own good and to promoting the good of others.

In philosophical terms, Buddhism makes a distinction between Nirvana and Samsara. We think of Nirvana as the transcendent realm of freedom and ultimate peace, and Samsara as the realm of finitude and suffering, as the bondage of worldly life. On the basis of this understanding, we regard a Dharma retreat as an opportunity to leave behind our worldly cares and move a few steps closer to Nirvana, a few steps closer to real purity and wisdom. If you think of this distinction in absolutistic terms, then when you leave the monastery to return home, you might feel miserable, for you don’t want to face the mundane concerns, pressures, and obligations of household life.

But there is another way to look at our situation. In Buddhism we often use the image of a lotus flower growing up from the mud to illustrate the process of spiritual growth. The lotus flower is the symbol of perfect beauty and purity, yet it grows from the mud at the bottom of the pond. If there were no mud, the lotus flower could not grow; the lotus flower does not grow in a well-prepared garden on dry land. It is only in the mud, the mire of the pond, that the lotus flower can send down roots and rise up through the pond, inch by inch, until it reaches the surface of the pond. Then it opens up to share its beauty and fragrance with everyone.

This image of the lotus flower rising from the mud, rising higher and higher in the pond until it reaches the surface, symbolizes the life of a Buddhist living in the world. The lotus flower grows up from the lotus seed. The seed for your spiritual growth is strong faith in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. As a seed, faith has the potential to grow into a beautiful lotus flower, the flower of the enlightened mind. And what nurtures the seed is your life within the world, your experiences in your everyday lives. With the guidance of the Dharma, you can learn the skills needed to integrate your daily lives with the path to enlightenment and liberation. In so doing, you will give true meaning to your lives. Meaning comes into our lives when we pursue a goal that is truly good. The Buddha speaks of two kinds of good — one’s own good and the good of others — and he says that we enjoy the most meaningful life when we dedicate our efforts to fulfilling this two-fold good. So, in your day-to-day life, you must give attention both to achieving your own good and to promoting the good of others.

You promote your own good by undertaking sincere practice of the Dharma. There are three important spheres of Buddhist practice: devotion, study, and meditation. Devotion is the cultivation of the emotional side of our life. It leads the emotions into spiritually beneficial channels, inspiring the will, arousing our aspirations, settling our determinations. Like fuel for a car, devotion provides the power that makes study and meditation channels of Dharma progress. Study is necessary to sharpen your understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, to increase wisdom, but study without practice won’t lead to realization. So, to transform what is learned through study into true realization one has to practice bhavana, meditation. Meditation purifies the mind and enables us to see with direct insight the truth of the teaching, the truth of all phenomena.

So while you live your household life, fulfilling your responsibilities to your family, you should dedicate certain fixed periods each day to your Dharma practice: to devotions, serious study of the Buddha’s teachings, and mental cultivation. You should also maintain regular contact with the monastery. This sounds like a sales pitch, but it isn’t. It’s for your own benefit to have regular contact with wise and compassionate advisors, who can guide you, explain difficult points, and help you cultivate the path.

So far I’ve spoken about fulfilling your own good, but you should also give attention to the good of others. One way to do so is by the practice of generosity. Here in America we live in a very affluent society. We must consider the billions of people in this world living on the edge of starvation, the edge of poverty, the edge of misery and despair. We should help to alleviate their poverty to whatever extent we can and contribute in concrete ways to rescue them from misery.

You can also contribute to the good of others by helping the monastery itself. The monks want to use their time to study the Dharma in greater depth so they can share the Dharma with others, share it with you so that you too will reap the fruits of the path. But in order to have that time and opportunity to investigate the Dharma in depth, we really do need contributions of help — physical help and moral support.

I think Bodhi Monastery has the potential to make a powerful and effective contribution to the spread of Buddhism in North America. But for this monastery to succeed, we’ll need close and harmonious cooperation between the monastics and the affiliated lay community. So let us all join hands to make Bodhi Monastery a true Bodhi site for studying, practicing, and realizing the teachings of the Buddha.

The above is a condensed version of Bhante Bodhi’s closing talk at a Dharma Retreat at Bodhi Monastery