Individual Practice versus Relational Practice
Buddhism is often presented in a rather individualistic manner in the sense that it is described as a practice for the individual to do on their own. Each must walk the path. This type of idea is not wrong, but it carries considerable danger of misrepresenting the balance and scope of Buddhist teaching.
In fact, the great majority of Buddhist scriptures describe interactions between people. What is profoundly interesting is the Buddha’s compassion for different people who come to see him. Then the koans of Zen are also mostly descriptions of interactions between masters or masters and disciples. Again, the famous stories of Tibetan Buddhism describe the interactions between Milarepa and Marpa or Tilopa and Naropa, or Guru Rimpoche and the people he met. It is mostly about how illumined beings interacted with others and the whole tradition descends through such interactions and derives from those original encounters that people had with Shakyamuni.
It is, therefore, just as true to say, or even more true to say, that Buddhism is a style of relating as to say that it is an individual practice. What is the difference?
When we think of an individual practice, we tend to think of something with a fixed protocol. When people talk about ‘my practice’ they mean that they have a ritual of some kind that they do that they believe has a good effect upon them, probably leading to their own illumination. Meditation is just as much a ritual as lighting a candle if what we mean by it is a fixed form of practice done regularly. In fact, meditation may be even more strongly 'ritualised' than lighting a candle, since each candle is slightly different.
When we think of interactions, however, every one is unique. One cannot be in control. It is like a dance: just as much depends upon the other as upon oneself and then there is the influence of the circumstances within which the interaction takes place. So if we take only these three things - self, other and circumstance, it is apparent that the self-element is in the minority. This, therefore, calls for flexibility and a certain wisdom.
If we go back to the example of lighting a candle, one should be able to see that one could do it as an individual practice, in which case the candle is merely a utility, or one could do it with some degree of relationship to the candle as the 'other'. In the latter case, each instance of lighting a candle is going to be more distinct and unique than if one does it as an individual practice. So there is an important difference of attitude here and the relational attitude is much closer to the essence of Buddhism.
Refuge is a Relationship
Buddhism is a wisdom religion and much of this wisdom is the practical wisdom of knowing how to relate to others and of skill in relating to them when they do or say something unexpected. As we have just seen with the candle, 'others' do not always have to be animate. When things become 'others' in this sense, they 'teach' us, and so become Buddhas and Dharmas. When everything becomes so then we live in the midst of the 'myiad Dharmas' and 'myriad Buddhas'.
When Shakyamuni went to see Angulimala he did not know what was going to happen. He was learning as well as teaching. We can immediately see that a characteristic of the Buddha was a kind of courage or fearlessness in meeting others, no matter who they were. If we think of this as being one of the main hallmarks of Buddhism we start to get an important sense of what Buddhism is all about. We can also see that somebody who lives in such a bold way learns a lot and learns fast. Thus, they are continually growing and changing.
For many people the attraction of having a practice lies in the security of predictability. This, however, is definitely not what Buddhism is about. Buddhism seeks security in taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, not in any technique or self-controlled practice. So here there lies a pitfall. If one has a practice, then the aim of that practice should be to get one beyond dependence upon the practice, not leave one immersed in attachment to it. One has to penetrate to the deep meaning of the practice, which is always taking refuge, no matter what form of practice one is using. Then there is a second kind of pitfall which is that the partial security provided by the predictability of practice can itself function as a delaying tactic, enabling the practitioner to avoid really letting go.
Refuge is itself a relationship practice. It is to entrust oneself to the Buddhas without knowing what they will do with you. When one lets go of self, one puts oneself in a position where the mission that the Buddhas have for you can become apparent. This can seriously disrupt one’s taken for granted life.
Relationships are not predictable. One has to play one’s part. To play one’s part is to be 'one hand clapping' - as in the Children's game where two people clap hands together, but the other hand is not under one’s control, so to make the two to meet is never quite the same from one instance to the next.
So Buddhism is like that - a relationship practice. The art of making two hands come together in a clap, only one of which is one’s own, requires something more than just individual practice. Like practising tennis, one needs at least a wall that will bounce the ball back and each time it comes at you requires something slightly new. Facility in response does come with practice, but it is practice that is interactional.
The relational attitude thus makes a big difference. Buddhism is transmitted by encounter because the right kind of encounter is Buddhism. Namo Buddhaya.