I’ve been reading a bit lately from Alexander Berzin and the following paragraphs got me thinking. Was I like this when I got started? Did I really look like “that guy”?
“Now, there are many different levels of practice of Buddhism and how we would go about applying it into our daily life. There is a very, very superficial level which doesn’t really do very much to change us internally. And, then there is a deeper level, in which we are actually working on ourselves, working on our personalities, working toward the goals of liberation and enlightenment. Now, in the beginning, many people are attracted to this superficial level and so they deal with externals. By externals I mean you have to have a red blessing string around your neck, or around your wrist, or both, and wear a mala…a rosary of beads…around the other wrist and, maybe when we are walking around or sitting, then you thumb the rosary and mumble something. And we have to have a good supply of incense and candles, and all the proper meditation cushions, and Tibetan paintings and pictures, and, if we really go far in this direction, we might even start to wear some sort of Tibetan clothing.
I remember when I first went to India, in 1969, when I started living there. That was the height of the hippie era and there were very few Westerners who were there at that time. But many of them dressed fully in Tibetan exotic robes and costumes, and things like that. And I was rather judgmental about the whole thing and thought that it was offensive to the Tibetans; that these Westerners were just mimicking them and copying them. At that time, I was living with a Tibetan monk. So I asked him, “What do Tibetans think of these Westerners, who go around dressed in Tibetan clothes?” And he said, “We think that they like Tibetan clothes.” So, no judgment there, whatsoever. It was very, very helpful.
But, whether we are judgmental about it or not, just changing our clothing, wearing a rosary around our wrist, having many blessing cords, red strings around our neck, doesn’t really change us very much, does it? Internally? So, I think that, particularly in the West, it’s not such a great idea to go around with all of this because it brings about people making fun of us. If a woman is dressed in a very beautiful, elegant dress for an evening event and they have some dirty red strings around their neck, that doesn’t quite look proper, does it? So, I always advise people that if they would like to keep these red blessing cords, keep it in their wallet, keep it in their pocket, keep it in their pocketbook, whatever. You don’t have to actually display it. Displaying it doesn’t bring more “blessings,” does it? And, if you want to say mantras, the same thing; you don’t have to bring out your rosary and make a whole big show out of it. You can say it silently in your mind, if you are in a crowd, or on a bus, or whatever. So, this is what I mean by a slightly changed circumstance that we have. If we are in a society in which such type of behavior, or such type of strings, would look pretty weird, then there’s no need to have them – externally. And, if our practicing Buddhism is simply wearing these strings, then obviously that’s not a very deep practice of Buddhism, and not very helpful.
Actually, if you look at the way that Tibetans deal with these strings, they only wear them for a short period of time. They don’t just wear them until they really get them dirty and horrible. They wear them for a very short period of time and then retire them; put them on their altar or something like that. So, I think the advice that we have in the seven points of attitude training, or mind training, lojong, is very helpful here. Which is, “Transform internally, but leave your external form consistent with what is ordinarily around.” So, it’s best to keep our practice private. This is particularly true if we are lay practitioners living in a non-Buddhist society.”