I’ve been unwell since mid-November. Physically, I am very weak, which prevents me doing a lot of things.
A while ago I spoke to my lama about taking my dharma practice further, and he suggested I start to practise the Ngöndro, or the foundational practices of Mahamudra. This involves a lot of practice; there are certain things from four main parts (called the four uncommon preliminaries, i.e. refuge and bodhicitta, Vajrasattva practice, mandala offerings and guru yoga) that have to be done 100 000 times, so it will take me several years to complete it all.
Given my current physical limitations due to illness, I can just about manage the customary three prostrations when entering the shrine room to practise. However, the refuge and bodhicitta practice, the first of the uncommon preliminaries, involves making more prostrations. A lot of them. A hundred thousand of them in total. Doing that particular practice is out of the question for now until I recover.
Thankfully, though, that doesn’t mean I can’t make a start, because before the uncommon preliminaries come the four ordinary preliminaries: meditating on the preciousness of this human life, impermanence, karmic cause and effect and the defects of samsara. That is a practice that I am able to do, so in some ways it is good that I am unable to practise the prostrations yet, because it gives me more time to meditate on these.
The Ngöndro text we use in my tradition (The Chariot Travelling the Noble Path, which is practised according to the instructions in The Torch of True Meaning) reads as follows for the first of the fourordinary preliminaries.
Recite the teaching on the human body with its eighteen conditions, so difficult to find:
First meditate on the precious eighteen conditions
Hard to obtain, easy to lose, which this time should be used with purpose.
I won’t go into detail of what the eighteen conditions are that make this human life precious, but basically they are the conditions that allow me to be able to practise the Dharma in this life, without which I would not be able to progress.
Meditating on that this evening, I realised that there are many other aspects of my life, beyond the traditional ones described in the text, without which I would not have been fortunate enough to discover the Dharma.
Many years ago, I was involved in a horrific road accident. I was physically unharmed, but I saw terrible things that would traumatise anybody and I thought I was going to die. That led to me later developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a terrible mental illness that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. They say that every cloud has a silver lining, but I struggled to find any positive aspects of having PTSD. However, looking back now, if it hadn’t been for developing PTSD I might never have discovered mindfulness-based therapy. That, in turn, led me to investigate the Buddhist roots from which it came, which led me to meditation classes at the Buddhist Centre. Those, in turn, led me to want to explore Buddhism more, which led to me taking refuge and becoming a Buddhist myself, and thus coming to the right conditions for dharma practice. Without having PTSD, I might never have discovered this wonderful way of life. How’s that for a silver lining? It’s just another condition that makes it possible for me to practise the dharma.
In my life I have had a lot of sickness. I don’t know why, but I have. However, if the positive side of that is that I am now able to learn and practise the dharma, and that I temporarily have more time to do so, then even sickness has been worth going through in some ways.
Yes, my human life, just as it is, is very precious. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it is used with purpose.