This is an edited excerpt of advice from Lama Zopa Rinpoche to a nun who wrote to him with questions about her practice, especially regarding her not being able to find time to study and do her practice commitments while she was working at a Dharma center.
The preliminary practices that you have not finished you can do in big numbers in retreat. Some you can also continue to do in the center while you study or work. It’s up to you, whatever you can do. You can decide in your heart how you feel.
Regarding how much time to spend on your own commitments, sometimes when there’s a good opportunity to study, then put more time into studying. At other times, put your main effort into doing deity or preliminary practice retreat. Then, when you are staying at a center or elsewhere, how much time you spend depends on the importance of your activities. Don’t get caught up in the titles: “These are commitments,” “These are preliminary practices,” or “I don’t get time to do this because I have to work for the center.”
You should put your main effort into whatever is most beneficial for sentient beings. You can only judge the benefit by thinking of lam-rim. Without the lam-rim, there’s no way to judge what is most beneficial for sentient beings or to bring yourself to enlightenment quickly.
In my view, the whole thing depends first on the practice of guru devotion. By meditating on the eight advantages of devoting to the guru and disadvantages of not devoting correctly to the guru, you can understand the beginning of the path to enlightenment.
The first thing to think of is fulfilling the wishes or following the advice that’s given by the guru. Otherwise, if you think you’re missing out on a practice or study or something else because you’re working for the center and the guru, then you can do the other thing but you may not have much result.
For example, Milarepa offered his body, speech and mind to Marpa and requested teachings and asked him also to look after his food, clothing and so forth, because Milarepa had nothing. Then for years Marpa never gave him any teaching, only hard work, even building a nine-story tower that he had to tear down after it was built. Marpa never talked sweetly to Milarepa, but would scold him and kick him out of teachings.
Marpa’s wife couldn’t bear this, so without asking Marpa’s permission, she quietly sent Milarepa to Lama Ngagpa, a disciple of Marpa’s. There, Milarepa was given teachings and did meditation for six months. During this time, he didn’t have any dreams or other good signs. Lama Ngagpa asked, “Did you get permission from Milarepa?” Then Lama Ngagpa found out that there was no permission, he brought Milarepa back to Marpa.
I remember not only stories among Buddhist students about relying on the guru, but Hindus as well. For example, an Indian student had a Hindu guru who taught him yoga. He developed the ability to bring kundalini energy from the secret place to the heart, but then found out that his guru had killed someone. He lost faith, and was unable to bring the kundalini energy from the heart up to the crown. It got stuck at the heart.
Whatever brings enlightenment quickly and the greatest benefit to sentient beings, that is the most powerful practice. It doesn’t necessarily always have to be sitting, closing your eyes for many hours. Of course, I understand nothing is easy – study, retreat, work for the center, whatever, especially dealing with people at the center.
By practicing the sutra path, it takes 600 great eons to create merit. But in the case of the bodhisattva Tak Tu Ngo, the Always Crying One, he was able to complete the first countless great eon of merit within seven years by doing service to his guru, Bodhisattva Chopa.
Also, Kadampa Geshe Cha Yul Wa is held up every day by the lineage lamas like a world champion, the best example of devoting to the virtuous friend. As soon as he hears that his guru Je Ngawa is talking to him, even if he is offering a mandala, he immediately stops in the middle of what he is doing and offers service. One day he collected dirt from his guru’s room in his shemtab (monk’s lower garment) and was carrying it down some steps to go out. When he got to the third step, he saw a number of Buddhas in the nirmanakaya aspect. His mind reached the third level on the Mahayana path of accumulation.
When Lama Atisha showed the aspect of having a sickness with diarrhea and pee-pee, Dromtonpa cleaned it by hand without any hesitation. While serving this way so much purification happened. Dromtonpa achieved clairvoyance and was able to read the mind even of tiny insects, of ants at a distance that would take an eagle eighteen days to fly. This happened suddenly.
Even from personal experience, when the guru is very pleased with you then when you do meditation it will be much easier. The connection is good and it is very easy to feel it in your heart. That’s a sign of heavy purification and receiving the blessings of the guru. The mind becomes soft and you feel that if you continue, you can actually achieve realization in the topic you are meditating on.
If you can, do what brings great benefit, otherwise do what is middling, and otherwise do what is small benefit. It doesn’t need a lot of skill. Skill depends on wisdom.
The basis is two things: good heart and guru devotion. Between these two, devotion to one’s virtuous friend is the key thing. If you don’t have this, even bodhicitta generally doesn’t happen. Everything becomes blocked.
On occasions when there are many important things to accomplish at the center, if you expect to find time for everything, that’s not possible, unless you can manifest like Arya Bodhisattvas who can perform one hundred different activities with a hundred or a thousand bodies. Otherwise, with only one body, one can’t expect to do everything.
Along with that work, one can do one’s commitments. When you are doing your job, if you don’t need to use your lips for talking, then you can use them to chant or recite prayers, while your body is doing the work. During times when there are very important things to do, or when one is traveling or going by car, just do the prayers then.
It also depends on what’s more important. For example, when somebody’s sick or dying, needing help, if you don’t give them help but instead go back into your room to meditate or do prayer, that becomes selfish. For example, there’s something very important to do for others, but you don’t do that, and instead think of your own benefit.
Even if one misses out on one’s prayers and meditation, by working for the guru or for others, there’s no regret because doing the prayers is supposed to be for others, to bring them to enlightenment.
If it is because you’re lazy, then that’s a loss. In the other case, there’s no loss. Also, one can reduce the daily practice commitments when there’s something very important to do, because the aim is to do what’s most beneficial for others. Analyze in this way. Think what is the most important thing in life. That way you won’t find much confusion in life.