The Four Reliances

Sometimes we make mistakes and stumble on the Buddhist path.

It happens to everyone. This is a list from the Buddha of things we can rely on on the path to help us avoid going astray.

The list comes from a teaching called the Four Reliances, which is found in several Mahayana scriptures.

1) Rely on the Dharma, Not on People.

This is the idea of the finger pointing at the moon. Teachers are very helpful, but no one can give the Dharma to you. You have to practice it to gain the benefits. If you don’t practice the Dharma and have experiences with it yourself, then you won’t make progress. Great Ultimate Truths require that we learn them for ourselves. A teacher can be very good at showing you the moon, but you have to actually look at it yourself to see it.

2) Rely on Wisdom, Not Just an Accumulation of Knowledge.

It’s important to remember that the wisdom of Buddha Nature is already within us. We just have to tune into it by clearing delusions. We can fill our heads with stories and facts about Buddhist practice, but that won’t equal the amount what we receive from a single moment of awareness of our Buddha Nature. If we can rely on wisdom and look at the world with it, then we can see things as they really are instead of seeing things through a cloud of delusion. Studying the teachings is helpful, but for real success on the path, we have to understand them intuitively as well as intellectually.

3) Rely on the Meaning of the Words, Not on the Words.

The truths expressed in words aren’t the words themselves. This is important. In all aspects of our lives we label things and become beholden to those labels. Bodhidharma said that real truths are “Beyond words and letters.”

4) Rely on the Complete Meaning, Not the Partial Meaning.

We should practice and study until we have a really deep understanding of Buddhist teachings. The deep meaning of the Dharma is the truth of our Buddha Nature. We shouldn’t lose sight of this. It can be easy to have a shallow or moderately deep understanding and think we’ve attained Enlightenment. We need to be on guard against this.

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher living in Kansas City. He gives online teachings through the Open Heart Project. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal.

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