As we work with the various meditation practices, a genuine transformation begins to occur. Our attachment to a self as a solid entity begins to soften and melt, and we begin to reconnect with the openness and warmth of our essential nature.
Unfortunately, many of us get caught up in the resulting sense of well-being and forget the most important of the Buddha's teachings: that until all of us are free, none of us are free. We rest in our own comfort zones, our contentment dimming our awareness of the pain and hardship that others around us may be feeling. We get caught up in a stage of practice that I've learned to describe as "cozy realization," where we think, "Yeah, I've done a really good job. I've made a lot of progress. My life is so good. I'm so happy."
Yet lurking just beneath that self-congratulatory satisfaction is a nagging discontent, a feeling that the path we've undertaken offers something much grander and more fulfilling than coziness. Sometimes -- if we're lucky -- that discontent become very uncomfortable.
That, at least, was my experience a few years a few years ago, when I was teaching in Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It's a very powerful place, which exerts an influence that can induce you to reexamine your life. As I looked back over my own life, my work, my practice and my relationships, I began to feel that something was missing. I saw in myself, while teaching, for example, a tendency to get tired, to want to finish quickly, to do something else. Even my meditation sessions had become a bit tiresome. I just wanted to sit back, relax, and eat or watch television with my wife and daughters. I was tired, distracted, and sometimes bored.
But in Bodhgaya, I began to think about the many great teachers who had helped and encouraged me. They never seemed to be tired; their enthusiasm for whatever project in which they were engaged never flagged. They were entirely motivated by bodhicitta -- the sincere desire to help all sentient beings become completely free of suffering, which is the heart of the Buddhist path.
When I looked at my own life, I realized that I was uncomfortable because I wasn't committed to bodhicitta. I was locked in my coziness -- making boundaries between my work life, my practice life, and my family life.
So one evening I went to the area of Bodhgaya where there's a tree grown from a cutting of the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. I didn't tell anyone where I was going. I just went by myself, with the determination to take a vow of a bodhisattva -- one who works selflessly for the benefit of all beings.
I sat under the Bodhi tree and prayed a little bit, and then circumambulated it three times while reciting the bodhisattva vow. The moment I finished, I felt something lightly glancing off my head. I looked down, and there at my feet lay a leaf from the Bodhi tree.
What happened next was quite surprising. I'd been aware of people on either side of me, near the Bodhi tree. I thought they were chanting or praying -- but they'd actually been waiting for a leaf to fall. It's illegal to cut a leaf from the tree; no one can collect a leaf unless it falls naturally.
Suddenly, people began crowding in, grabbing for the leaf. I have to confess, I felt a similar urge, and since it had fallen right in front of me, I grabbed it. All of this happened in the space of a few seconds. I was holding the leaf, thinking, "The Bodhi tree had sent a leaf to me. I must be such a good person, such a good practitioner!"
As I walked away, though, I began to feel guilty. "You're such a terrible bodhisattva," I told myself. "You took a vow to dedicate your life to all sentient beings, but you can't give up this leaf to someone else." I felt so disgusted with myself that I almost ripped up the leaf and threw it to the ground.
Then another voice came, from nowhere: "Keep this leaf as a reminder of how easy it is to break the commitment to work for the benefit of others. You might say the words as sincerely as you can, but it's your actions that really count."
A few days later, I asked one of my students to put the leaf in a frame, along with a line or two I'd written about the experience. I brought it back to my home in Nepal, where it hangs over my bed. When I see it, I'm reminded that sometimes the most profound lessons are often learned through events and experiences that appear quite brief and simple.
What happens if we allow ourselves to become attuned to the simple transactions of our daily lives? What can we learn from those moments that nearly slip past our awareness? How can we benefit others by paying more attention to our own "leaf lessons?"
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