Freedom does not start from the outside. Although external conditions have a part to play, that is not where freedom originates. This might sound backward, but authentic freedom arises initially from inner conditions. Its deepest roots are within us.
Most often when we speak of freedom, what we actually have in mind are freedom’s outer manifestations. This may be the gravest error we make in our understanding of freedom. If we think we will achieve freedom when we can exercise complete control over our immediate environment, we overlook the single most important determinant of authentic freedom: our own minds.
Our mind has unlimited potential. It is not bound to any one position or viewpoint. What we think or feel — our mental state — is not simply determined by outer circumstances. Because of this, no matter how challenging our external conditions might be, we can experience freedom if we cultivate the inner resources that allow us to feel free. The basis for establishing authentic freedom is within us.
If you can access a sense of inner freedom no matter what is going on around you, you are experiencing freedom. As important as outer liberties are, freedom does not consist solely in enjoying physical or verbal liberty, such as freedom of movement or freedom of speech. We may have the liberty to do and say as we wish and yet still be deeply unfree mentally or emotionally. This is why inner freedom is key. When we have freed our minds and hearts from within, our happiness no longer depends on making the rest of the world serve our self-centered goals. Not only that, we gain freedom to work to change the external conditions that have the potential to limit or obstruct our freedom from outside, and we also have what we need to be able to work for the freedom of others.
What are we looking for when we seek freedom? Maybe at the bottom of it all, the freedom we seek is the experience of genuine happiness. Since this is an inner experience, external things cannot be the measure of our happiness or our freedom. We will come back in a moment to the question of what we mean by happiness and how it enables us to experience freedom, but I think if we examine our own experiences, we can see that whether we call it freedom or not, if we feel free, we feel happy, and if we feel happy, we also feel free. The state of mind and the feeling we seek can be called freedom, or it can be called happiness. But whatever name we give it, if we want to experience happiness or freedom, we must cultivate the inner conditions that give rise to those states.
As the wisdom of recognizing your own true nature dawns, it clears away the blinding darkness of confusion, and, just as you can see clearly the inside of your home once the sun has risen, you gain confident certainty in the true nature of your mind.
The categories of teachings are endless. The entrance doors to the vehicles are innumerable. The words to be explained are extensive. Even if you succeed in memorizing millions of volumes of dharma scriptures, unless you are able to practice the essential meaning, you can never be sure that they will help you at the moment of death. And even if your education in studies and reflections is boundless, unless you succeed in being in harmony with the dharma, you will not tame your enemy, negative emotions. Even if you succeed in being the owner of a trillion worlds, unless you can curtail your plans from within with the feeling that nothing more is needed, you will never know contentment. Unless you prepare yourself with the attitude that your death could happen at any time, you cannot achieve the great aim that is surely needed at the time of death.
Thinley Norbu Rinpoche
The point is that Dharma is intended to benefit the mind, so whatever one does in Dharma is likewise intended to benefit the mind. If a particular practice is beneficial to the mind, then it is positive. Therefore, if practices such as doing prostrations and setting up an altar and making offerings and repeating the Dorje Sempa [Vajrasattva] mantra benefit the mind, one should definitely do them. They can all benefit the mind.
Buddha Shakyamuni said that all phenomena are an expression of the mind. The mind is the most important thing to work with in Dharma. So one’s basic frame of reference in any Dharma practice is working with and transforming the mind, and whatever furthers that intention is an appropriate activity in Dharma.
When you feel authentic love toward others, you will be deeply moved to act. You will not rest until you have found ways to secure the happiness of all those you are able to include in your feelings of love. As you learn to love more and more widely, your love will motivate you to act to benefit not just the few people in your inner circle, but your whole society, and eventually, the whole world.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
Most Vajrayana students are convinced they have boundless devotion for their guru, but in reality what they feel is more like admiration, in the same way they might admire a political candidate whose ethical and moral standing reassures them.
Not only is that not devotion, it’s actually quite dangerous. If the politician ignores you or does something slightly unsavory, even just once, the next chance you get, you will probably not vote for him. Likewise, if the guru at some point ceases to reassure you, you will want to switch gurus. This fickleness is what keeps politicians on a continuous campaign trail, trying to prove their worth and distributing freebies to make people feel special. No guru should have to campaign in order to fish out devotion from a student.
Some admiration may come naturally at the beginning of a guru-disciple relationship, but how do you get beyond merely liking the guru to true devotion? You can start by checking your motivation. Forget about enlightening all sentient beings; you should be following the guru because, at the very least, you’re seeking your own enlightenment. Yet many people approach the guru with a less straightforward motivation.
Clinging cannot be limited;
even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment
is to go astray.
Just let things be in their own way
and there will be neither coming nor going.