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Guest Post: Transformational Practice, by Thomas Hochmann

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Today’s guest post is from Thomas Hochmann, a former English teacher and a student of Buddhism since 2002. Today, he will lead us through something called transformational practice. His blog can be found at http://www.hochmann.org and you can follow him on Twitter (@hochmann).

Transformational Practice, by Thomas Hochmann

When you think of religion, what comes to mind? Here in the USA, I believe most people would answer with words like church, God, prayer, belief, faith, etc. For myself, the words “faith” and “belief” were always synonomous with religion. It always seemed to me that religion was primarily an exercise of the heart and the mind, something private between oneself and the cosmos. Over time I have come to see that my understanding of religion (and spirituality in general) was only half of the equation. I owe perhaps the deepest gratitude to a Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, also known as Thay. Let me show you why with a quote from his book Living Buddha, Living Christ:

Our faith must be alive. It cannot be just a set of rigid beliefs and notions. Our faith must evolve every day and bring us joy, peace, freedom, and love. Faith implies practice, living our daily life in mindfulness. Some people think that prayer or meditation involves only our minds or our hearts. But we also have to pray with our bodies, with our actions in the world. And our actions must be modelled after those of the living Buddha or the living Christ. If we live as they did, we will have deep understanding and pure actions.
— Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ
(emphasis added)

Thay is well-known for representing “engaged Buddhism” — Buddhism in action. He has written many wonderful books, but everything he has ever said or written is summarized in the quote above. For him, Buddhism and Christianity and every other religion are not effective unless they are put into practice, here and now, in the real world we live in. Religion cannot just be something you think about or even something you feel. It needs to become part of everything you do.

Thay talks extensively about the difference between devotional practice and transformational practice. In my early approaches to Buddhism, I paid attention only to the devotional side. Growing up in a scientifically-minded family and spending all my time studying, it was natural for me to focus on the brainy parts. Perhaps knowing people like me would see things that way, the Buddha was careful to emphasize both sides of the equation:

If you have confidence in the Dharma, if you practice the Dharma, I am always with you.
— The Buddha

“Have confidence in the Dharma” is what Thay calls devotional practice. This is having faith in the teachings and believing them with every fiber of your being. In your mind, you accept those truths. And in your heart, you believe them strongly.

“Practice the Dharma” is what Thay calls transformational practice. That means using the teachings and your faith as the fuel for concrete action in everyday life. You mindfully use your spiritual knowledge to promote goodness, healing, love, and positivity. In that way, the Buddha is “always with you.” Your actions stem from what the Buddha taught, and so bring him to life in you. As long as the Buddha’s teachings are confined to books, web sites, and the reasoning brain, the Buddha is dead. It is not until the Buddha comes out in our actions that he is alive.

As an example, take the Five Precepts in Buddhism — refrain from destroying life, from stealing, from speaking unskillfully (lying, manipulating, etc.), from misusing sexuality, and from taking intoxicants. These make up an excellent code of conduct. However, if you see them as merely somebody else’s rules being imposed on you, they will do little good. The first step is to look deeply into the Precepts, and know their truth deeply in your heart. If you know in your heart that it’s a bad thing to steal, this is devotional practice. You know that it’s wrong to steal literally (e.g. taking someone’s bicycle) as well as in subtle ways (wasting somebody’s time). Knowing this in a deep way will form the basis for actions in line with what you are devoted to — your actions will be such that you will avoid stealing bicycles and wasting people’s time, because you truly know the negative side. This is transformation: your actions express the truths that you know and the things you believe.

The power of any religion or spiritual tradition is not just to settle our hearts or to tantalize our minds. The real power is to shape our actions. Accepting the teachings of Buddha, or Jesus, or another great teacher is a good first step. But the real value of those teachings is when they become the foundation for every breath, every thought, every word, and every act. Transformational practice is an ongoing process that never ends. Being spiritual, being enlightened is not like graduating from college. You graduate from college, and you are now a “college graduate.” You don’t have to do anything more to be a college graduate — that label is a label of state, a label of accomplishment. It is forever true from that point on. But enlightenment and wisdom don’t work that way — you have to be enlightenment and wisdom.

We need to understand that Master Dogen’s statement “There is no enlightenment without morality and no morality without enlightenment” arises directly from his equation “Practice is enlightenment.”
– John Daido Loori, The Heart of Being

2 comments to Guest Post: Transformational Practice, by Thomas Hochmann

  • Jami

    Very sensitive and sensible Post. Thank you, Thomas. “Practice what you preach” is a precept in itself.

    What may cause problems is how far the doctrinal precepts may depart from the good. This may involve the issue, for example, of Jihad. It may involve, from an Evangelical perspective, the notion that certain core values of Christianity can not be negotiated. It means views about ideals, classess, and issues to do with discriminatory practices.

    In short, to practice what you preach may raise troubling, divisive views. It certainly involves a commentary on one’s faith, a faith which is open to counter truth(s). Despite all this, if we can agree on fundamentals, then the precept of ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ can assist us in contemplative dialogue.

  • Jami,

    Thanks for your comments. A great point! Many teachings in Buddhism would support the very point you make. The one that immediately jumps to mind is — “wisdom without love is not wisdom.” Even if what you know and believe is the truth, using it to beat other people over the head with is not the right way to go. Even the peaceful teachings of Buddhism could be misused and “preached” to harm other people by making them feel needlessly guilty, cruelly judged, misunderstood, etc.

    There’s a metaphor (which I believe should be attributed to the Buddha, but I can’t recall for sure) that says wisdom and love are the two wings of a bird. Without one or the other, the bird cannot fly. Our spiritual lives are like the bird. If we simply know a lot, that’s not enough to live a good life — we have to temper the wisdom with love, and temper the love with wisdom. With those two wings at full strength, our spirituality can take flight and express itself through our actions in the world.

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