These days, many people are very enthusiastic about the dharma, the teaching of the buddhas. What is so important, I feel, is that initial stage, when you’re really in love with the dharma, when you feel inspired and enthusiastic. That’s the time to go all out and get a good basis in the dharma and stabilize it.

What the dharma brings us, what it teaches us, very essentially, is to be pure, authentic, and natural. The first and most important thing is pure motivation. There’s a famous story about a hermit long ago in Tibet called Geshe Ben. He was in retreat, and one day he heard that his sponsors, who were financing his retreat, were coming to visit him. So he cleaned his room, arranged the shrine very neatly, set out all the offerings perfectly, and then sat and waited for his sponsors to arrive. Suddenly, just before they arrived, he reflected on his motivation and said to himself, “What am I doing? This is all fake. I’m just hoping to create a good impression, that’s all!” He snatched a handful of ash from the stove by his side and flung it all over the shrine and the offerings. A great master called Padampa Sangye who heard about this called it “the greatest offering in the whole of Tibet.”

Pure motivation and a good heart are fundamental. I remember how Dudjom Rinpoche [1904–1987] always used to say that a person needs three qualities. The first, he said, is sampa zangpo—a good heart.

The second is tenpo—to be stable and reliable. One of our greatest problems is that we lack stability. However much we want to be stable and reliable, everything is so impermanent that things are always in a state of flux. Then, if our mind is not strong, we can be swept away by circumstances and changes. When everything is so impermanent, we become unreliable.

It seems that many people are all too stable when it comes to being negative—stable in their wrong views. Sadly, often that’s not the case in terms of the teachings; the teachings have not become a part of us, so we don’t have that stability.

For example, a string of beads has a thread running through all the beads, keeping them together. What we need is a thread too—of sanity and stability. Because when you have a thread, even though each bead is separate, they hang together. When we have the teachings in us, stabilizing us, there’s a thread to keep our life together that prevents us from falling apart. And when you have this string, you have flexibility, too. That’s how you can have the freedom to be unique and special and individual and still have stability and humor. This kind of character is what we need to develop; this character is the thread.

Without discipline, it’s very difficult to develop stability; that’s why we have a practice. And when we live according to the dharma, when we follow a teacher, when we follow the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, what it really does is bring us stability within ourselves. So, for example, when we have taken refuge, we find a refuge in ourselves; when we need ourselves, we are there for us. So often when we need ourselves, we’re not there.

The third quality Dudjom Rinpoche spoke of is lhöpo—to be spacious, at ease with ourselves. If we are at ease with ourselves, we are at ease with others. If we are not at ease with ourselves, then we will be uncomfortable, especially in company. Imagine you find yourself at a smart party in Paris. All kinds of people are there, from different backgrounds, slightly different from you, and one very suave and successful person turns round to greet you. Even the way he says “bonjour” has a supercilious air about it, as he looks down his nose at you condescendingly. If you’re at ease with yourself, there’s no problem. He can drawl “bonjour” and look down on you, and you feel completely fine, because for you it is actually a bon jour, since you are well with yourself.

When we are well with ourselves, then whatever happens, it really doesn’t matter, because we have equilibrium and stability. We don’t feel any lack of confidence. If not, we’re always on edge, waiting to see how someone reacts to us, what people say to us or think about us. Our confidence hangs on what people tell us about how we are, how we look, how we behave. When we are really in touch with ourselves, we know ourselves beyond what others may tell us. So these three qualities—a good heart, stability, and spaciousness—these are really what you could call basic human virtues.

From “Finding the Thread” in Losing the Clouds, Gaining the Sky, © 2007, editor Doris Wolter. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications,

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