What does it mean to practice Dharma ‘purely’?

What is pure Dharma practice? It has been explained by Teachers such as Dromtonpa that if we have renounced attachments to the comforts of this life our Dharma practice will be pure. However, if we have not renounced attachment to the comforts of this life, even if we engage in the advanced practices of Secret Mantra our practice will not be pure. To develop detachment to the pleasures of this life we do not need to abandon our wealth and possessions, our friends and family. Simply being poor and alone does not mean that we have no attachment to the good things of this life; many poor and lonely people are strongly attached to this world and its pleasures.

To renounce attachment to the comforts of this life means to be free from eight worldly attitudes:

(1) Being pleased when receiving resources and respect
(2) Being displeased when not receiving resources and respect
(3) Being pleased when experiencing pleasure
(4) Being displeased when not experiencing pleasure
(5) Being pleased when enjoying a good reputation
(6) Being displeased when not enjoying a good reputation
(7) Being pleased when receiving praise
(8) Being displeased when not receiving praise

While we remain attached to resources and respect, pleasure, a good reputation, and praise, our mind is unbalanced and we are inclined to become overexcited when we possess them and dejected when we lose them. We remain unstable, vulnerable, and emotionally dependent upon these things. Most of our energy goes into securing them and guarding against their loss. When we practise Dharma our motivation is strongly influenced by our attachment and so our practice, like all our other activities, is in the interests of this life alone and aimed at obtaining its enjoyments.

To overcome attachment to the welfare of this life we meditate:

It makes no difference whether or not I receive respect, a good reputation, or praise. I do not receive any great benefit from these and when I lose them I am not greatly harmed. Words of blame cannot hurt me. Wealth is easily lost, and the pleasures of this life are transient. I do not need to be so interested in these things or overly concerned about them.

If we can develop equanimity with regard to the concerns of this life we shall overcome many of our daily anxieties and frustrations. We shall find that we have more energy for our Dharma practice and that our practice becomes pure. By comparison with non-religious people, anyone who has developed equanimity with regard to worldly concerns has a high degree of spiritual attainment.

This balanced attitude is something that we need to cultivate because we do not have it naturally from the beginning of our spiritual training. If we have been practising Dharma for some time but cannot feel any of its benefits, the reason is that we are not yet practising pure Dharma. Therefore, in the beginning, our immediate aspiration should not be to gain the perfect results of Dharma practice. Rather, it should be to practise purely. If we can accomplish this aim the results will come naturally in their own time. At the beginning of our training, if we are ambitious to experience results, this ambition itself will be an obstacle to our pure practice because it will be mixed with attachment and worldly concerns. However, the ambition to practise purely is the well-balanced attitude of a steady practitioner. (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Joyful Path of Good Fortune: the Complete Buddhist Path to Enlightenmentpp. 146-148, © 1990, 1995)

There are important things to remember at the beginning and the end of any virtuous action. If we want that action to be pure and effective we should make sure that our initial motivation is uncontaminated and correct. Then, when the action is completed, we should dedicate the merit generated towards the desired goal. At the least our motivation before engaging in meditation or entering a retreat should be that of renunciation. This insures that our practices are not being used for a worldly purpose. Finally at the close of the session, whatever virtue has been gained should be dedicated to the attainment of enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Without a pure motivation our meditation will not be a pure Dharma practice, and without proper dedication the aim of our meditation will not be fulfilled.

….The story is told of the king Prasenajit who invited Buddha and his entire retinue to his palace for a grand feast. Standing at the door was a beggar who rejoiced in the king’s generosity but was saddened to think that he did not have the opportunity to perform such virtuous actions himself because he was poor. At the end of the banquet Buddha who understood the minds of all who were present, dedicated the merits of the beggar, and not those of the patron of the meal as was customary! The king, with great surprise, asked Buddha why he had done this. Buddha replied, ‘On this occasion the beggar has practised purer virtue than you. The virtue of your offerings has been stained with worldly thoughts of reputation, pride and the like, whereas the virtue of the beggar’s rejoicing was unmixed with such impurities. Thus I have dedicated his merits.’ (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Meaningful to Behold: Becoming a Friend of the Worldpp. 113, 108, © 1980, 1986, 1989, 1994, 2007)