World Clock

Monday, June 8, 2009

Buddhist Answers to common questions - Lam Shenphen Zangpo

Lam Shenphen Zangpo answers basic questions that every man, woman, and child on the street wants to know.

I often suffer with mood swings. Some days I am quite happy, but the next I feel quite irritated or depressed. How can Buddhism help me stabilize my life?

Well, nothing arising from no-where, and so there must be a reason for your emotional swings. Perhaps they are sparked by a colleague’s insensitive words or maybe you expect too much from life.

Whatever the trigger, the root cause is the same: relying on external references for happiness. This is an underlying reason for our vulnerability.

As we know, all form, emotions and perceptions are composed of an infinite number of parts, and even a minor change in any of these has far reaching effects. A stock market crash in London causes bankruptcies in Taipei. A politician killed in Lahore causes heightened security in New York. Due to its intricate and dependent nature, our environment is extremely fragile and unstable.

Therefore, it is natural to feel insecure when our mental well-being is contingent on external reference points. It is like leaning on a rickety desk. When it moves, we move. The trick, therefore, is remove ourselves from these externals and instead develop a genuine and flexible mind.

The great Indian Buddhist scholar Atisha Dipankara identified eight hopes and fears that bind us to external reference points: praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, and fame and disgrace. These are hooks and we are like fish deceived by their appearance. We believe they are a source of happiness, whereas in reality they are a short cut to suffering.

In the same way that a fish needs to identify these hooks to remain safe, we likewise need to detach from these eight dharmas for our mental well-being. They are the cause of our insecurity and mood swings.

Take an everyday situation as an example. Our boss praises our efforts. We are happy. Although we feel good, this should actually be a warning sign. It is like the bell on the fisherman’s rod warning us that we have been caught and are in trouble.

Why should being happy as the result of praise be dangerous? It is because the result is dependent on an unstable source. No sooner has our boss finished praising us than we are being berated by a jealous colleague. Crash. We fall from our lofty position.

Praise is like a happiness drug. It is addictive. And, like any drug or emotion, it causes us to relinquish control of our lives. That is suffering.

Furthermore, in order to get a continuous supply of this praise-drug, we start to channel our energies into gaining others’ approval. Our genuine mind and dignity are lost. We become fake and weak. We can even hurt others because we give them what they want, not what they need. Like a grandmother who stuffs her grandchildren with sweets and unhealthy snacks to gain love, we please others to garner their support and approval.

That is not to say that we should be indifferent towards others. Definitely, we should not. Compassion and caring are the root of Buddhist practice and are essential for the social cohesion of the planet. However, our action and words should be genuine and aimed at benefiting others, not motivated by personal gain.

How do we use this knowledge to gain stability? Well, Buddhism teaches three steps to transform the mind. The first is view, the second is meditation and the last is action. Knowing that the eight worldly dharmas are the cause of suffering is the view.

Buddhism encourages debate, and the teachings should not be taken on blind faith. Instead, like gold, they need to be examined and tested. In this respect, we meditate and contemplate on the view. We ask ourselves does it make sense. Does it benefit others? Finally, when we agree that it does, we enter the final stage - action.

Whenever we feel happy, we should ask ourselves, “Is this happiness due to others’ praise or the result of personal gain?” If it is, then we should immediately remind ourselves that it won’t last. We can say to ourselves, “This feeling has never lasted before, and it won’t last now”. Obviously, the same can be said for unhappy experiences. This is how we infuse our life with the correct view. Our exit from the emotional roller coaster is imminent.

So, to return to the question, Buddhism helps stabilize our lives by offering us a means to sever the root of instability. Obviously, this is a worthy achievement. However, it does not define the ultimate goal of Buddhism. If we consider human existence, we will realize that mere security cannot protect us from sickness, old age and death. It was this realization that caused the young Prince Siddhartha to flee the pleasantries of his palace and begin the path of self discovery. We should bear this in mind. In this way, we will not work with the Eight Worldly Dharmas merely to gain temporal mental peace, but instead aim to achieve full enlightenment. This is the true legacy bequeathed us by Prince Siddhartha.

I have a friend who had a very unhappy childhood. Now he is bitter and angry towards everyone. Are there any Buddhist practices that could help him let go of his anger and move on with his life?

Well, there needs to be some acknowledgement of the situation by your friend. Many people with this kind of attitude either do not recognize or do not accept they have a problem. They are in denial. The first step is to awaken your friend to the problem. Only then can remedial action begin.

I’ll relate a story. Some years ago when I was staying Tokyo, I occasionally visited a store run by an elderly lady. She was very much loved by the community, and one day I mentioned this to her. She replied that it hadn’t always been the case, and explained that she had suffered an unhappy childhood followed by an abusive marriage. She felt the world was against her and she fought back. According to her, she was very unpopular.

The situation began to change, she explained, after a friend persuaded her to attend a Dharma teaching. It was a very basic teaching on cause and effect, but it struck a chord. It caused her to realize that it was her own response to the world that was perpetuating the suffering. She was caught in a downward spiral. People were mean to her, and she retaliated. The teaching woke her to reality. She was out of denial, and swore from that moment to sever the downward spiral.

Therefore, it is important that you use skilful means to make your friend aware of his problem and, at same time, offer him solutions. You have to be like the Buddha who in his first sermon proclaimed that life was suffering, but at the same time offered a means to go beyond it.

Methods are plentiful, but to be effective they must have a view. Like the various parts of the eco-system, we are all connected and dependent on each other. Failing to recognize this fact creates a sense of alienation, which, as the old Japanese lady realized, is often followed by bitterness and anger. In her younger days she did not realize that her hostile attitude was like a tree shedding toxic leaves onto its own roots. She was poisoning herself.

Tonglen is a Buddhist practice that offers an effective means to challenge our ingrained fears and to dissolve our clinging to the ego. If your friend can do it regularly, I think it might help him overcome his anger and bitterness.

Practically, how do we practice tonglen? Well, first we think of someone who is suffering, perhaps a terminally ill patient alone in hospital or maybe a street-child in some anonymous city. We contemplate their fears and hardships and breathe in their suffering. On an inhalation we aim to take on all their pain and allow them the space to open and relax. On an exhalation, we send them happiness and whatever relieves their pain and fears.

During the practice, it is common to experience resistance or even anger. We just don’t want to take on another’s suffering or give them our happiness, and our deepest fears are represented by a heaviness in the pit of our stomach or a tightness in our chest. At such moments, we switch our attention to others who are likewise unable to face their fears, and we begin to take on their pain and send them happiness and joy.

In the same way that knots are removed from matted hair by continuous combing, our fears and bitterness are removed by repeated practice of tonglen. Over and over we breathe in others’ suffering and over and over we breathe out happiness and joy.

Let’s be honest. We have spent our whole lives chasing pleasure and running from pain, and it hasn’t worked. The same shadows follow us. Tonglen offers a means to challenge these fears and to finally lay them to rest. At the same time, the practice enables us to awaken our innate compassion and to experience the vastness of mind. We let go of past traumas and develop a spacious attitude to present problems. Life is no longer such a big deal.

Therefore, to return to your question, it is important that your friend first acknowledges that he has a problem. If he can do this, then recommend that he begin tonglen as a daily practice. In addition, he can also do it spontaneously. For example, if he sees someone in pain. At that very moment he can starting breathing in their suffering and sending them happiness.

As the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn says: “Breathe - You are alive!”

Everyone learns the thirty-seven practices of the bodhisattva in school, but I have no idea how to apply them in my daily life. How can we do this?

It is impossible to explain each verse in a short article like this, but at least I’ll try to offer some examples of how to approach the practices.

Let’s explore a couple of verses at random: “Regardless of how long spent living together, good friends and relations must some day depart. Our wealth and possessions collected with effort are left fare behind at the end of our life. Our mind, but a guest in our body`s great guest house, must vacate one day and travel beyond. Cast away thoughts that concern only this lifetime - the Sons of the Buddhas all practise this way.”

Superficially, the verse appears to implore us to abandon worldly life. This is not the case. If enlightenment depended on leaving friends and kin, then all we have to do is spend some time on a desert island to achieve it. It is not that simple. Whenever we consider the teachings of the Buddha, it is important to bear in mind that the focus in on transforming the mind and alleviating suffering. Physical action only supports this role.

Of course, undergoing intense mind training in a retreat environment can offer enormous benefits, but the best time and place to practice is right here and now - not at some future location that may never materialize.

Happiness is the motivation for our lives. From having a biscuit to getting married, everything we do is done with this intention. Most of the time, however, we don’t consider whether our action actually leads to this goal. We just follow habits and impulses. Even a gangster kills with the intention of being happy. Yet, I have never met a happy gangster.

Often, we are like a person in Wangdue who wants to go to Jakar, but drives South. Even after he does not reach his destination after a day of driving, he does not check his direction. Instead he drives faster.

In this respect, Gyalsé Ngulchu Tokmé is inviting us to examine our direction. It is not that friends and relatives are bad, but that our connection with them is often one of dependency. We feel lonely, and immediately reach for the phone. In this way, friends and relatives actually hinder our goal - to achieve freedom from suffering.

I’ll explain further. Emotions such as loneliness arise in the mind through a combination of many factors, such as past fears, mood and educational and social influences. In this way, they are a compounded phenomena, no different from a rainbow or mirage. They appear, but lack true existence. If this is difficult to accept, then try to locate the feeling of loneliness. Is it in the brain, in the heart or perhaps somewhere else? Like a mirage or rainbow we will not find it. In this way, we should understand that the emotion cannot harm us. It is only a sensation, and the way to realize this is to just watch it in a non-judgemental way.

When we do this, fears dissolve like storm clouds in the clear Autumn sky. On the other hand, constantly calling a friend at the merest twitch of loneliness perpetuates the illusion. It is like taking an aspirin to cure a chronic disease. The symptoms may temporarily disappear, but the overall condition deteriorates.

Therefore, the verse is not recommending that we abandon friends and family, but instead abandon the misconception that they are a solution to our emotional problems. If we can do this, then we can develop a healthy relationship with our associates that truly benefits all.

Here is another verse: “If in the midst of a large crowd of people someone should single us out for abuse, exposing our faults and flaws, we should not get angry or become defensive but instead just listen in silence and, heeding his words, bow in respect to this man as our teacher. The sons of the Buddhas all practise this way.”

Outwardly, this passage may appear to advocate passive acceptance, but this is not the case. Like the previous verse, it offers an effective way to work with the mind. For example, most people would feel embarrassed if their faults were exposed in front of a thousand people. Resentment and perhaps revenge would follow. However, we do not have to respond in this way. Instead of following our habitual responses, we could instead use the experience to examine our mind. We question what causes us to feel embarrassed. And, if we are honest, we will acknowledge that we have developed a pretty solid and overrated impression of ourselves. This is why the words hurt.

The verse invites us to free ourselves from these habitual responses. Rather than protecting ourselves from the outer world, we use the light of wisdom to examine the target. We ask what is it that hurts. Under this kind of scrutiny, the target dissolves like ice under the midday sun. We regain our flexible and spacious mind. When this occurs, there is nothing for the words to hit. This is no small liberation.

The 37 practices are an invitation to explore our mind. They are not indictments to abandon our responsibilities, but instead offer advise on how to deal with our world in a healthy and beneficial way.

Compassion is supposed to be the essence of Buddhism, but many Buddhists just spend their time and money going on pilgrimage tours or making merit for themselves. Isn’t this a contradiction?

That’s a good point. Let’s explore how compassion is linked with undertaking meritorious action, such as going on a pilgrimage, offering butter lamps or hoisting prayer flags. Everyone will agree that action begins in the mind. Even the construction of the world’s tallest building or the invention of the internet began as one single thought. Therefore, transforming the mind is the focus of Buddhist practice. If we are arrogant or proud, for example, how can our activities benefit others. It is no different from expecting healthy crops to grow from polluted or infertile soil. While a farmer will use manure to vitalize the ground, a Buddhist will undertake meritorious action to purify the mind.

As the question states, however, many people practice Dharma activities for personal benefit, not out of compassion. They go to Bodh Gaya or cir*****ambulate a chorten in order to pray for business or examination success. Some even consider a pilgrimage as a feather in their cap, something to boast about to friends. Rather than decreasing attachment to the idea of a separate and permanent self, which is the root of negative action and suffering, a pilgrimage done in this way actually perpetuates the attachment. When we undertake a Dharma activity, therefore, it is absolutely essential that it is done with a pure motivation to benefit others.

While, of course, there will be some worldly advantage in undertaking meritorious action for ourselves, we are still mired in the suffering of birth, sickness, old age and death. Basically, we are still in prison, but have just made our stay a little more comfortable.

Prince Siddhartha understood this when he fled the palace in the middle of the night. Even though he had the potential to be a great ruler and benefit many people, he knew that he did not yet posses the wisdom or skill to help people overcome the root of suffering. Consequently, he renounced his title and began mind training. He did not flee the palace to escape his responsibilities, but in order to benefit all beings on a profound level.

Here’s another example of this attitude. A person lives in a country where sickness pervades. He possesses tremendous courage and compassion, but lacks the medical knowledge to help people on a profound level. As a result, he decides to leave in order to train to become a doctor. The motivation to do this, however, is not for personal benefit, but purely to gain a skill that can increase his ability to assist others. In Buddhism, when we reach the same conclusion, we undertake practice with the aim of liberating all beings from suffering. This is called the mind of bodhicitta.

It is important to emulate this attitude when we embark on a pilgrimage. In fact, before we begin any of meritorious action, we should repeat words such as the following: “I will do this not for myself, but for the benefit of sentient beings”. The act should be concluded by dedicating the merit towards the enlightenment of all beings.

People who doubt that visiting a sacred site can be of value to others, should reflect on the importance of mind. As said earlier, even the the world’s tallest building or major technological breakthroughs began as a single thought in one person’s mind. Therefore, transforming the mind and correcting our view is the basis of benefiting others. Like a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples from a positive aspiration can cause far reaching effects. When thousands or millions of aspirational stones are dropped at one place, a tsunami of positive causes and conditions are initiated.

In this respect, it is said that when greed dominates a society, corruption is rampant. When anger clouds our minds, war follows, but when kindness fills our hearts, peace ensues. We should not dismiss the power of collective energy.

In the same way that a visit to Hong Kong offers us an opportunity to do business and create wealth, a trip to Bodh Gaya offers us the chance to purify our minds and create the conditions for peace and stability. Therefore, we can understand that going on a pilgrimage does not contradict the Buddhist ideal of compassion in any way. Instead, it actually generates the causes and conditions that allows it to manifest.
I am not attracted to visualizations or ritual. I want a practice that I can use in my daily life - something that changes my way of living. Can you suggest anything?

All genuine Buddhist practices aim at enlightenment, and we should be careful not to learn a technique merely to help us relax. Practice done in this way is no different from taking a painkiller for a chronic disease. The symptoms are temporarily removed, but the roots of suffering remain.

Visualizations and ritual are likewise explicitly linked to this final goal, and we shouldn’t feel intimidated by their seemingly complicated forms. The theory behind visualization is actually quite simple. When we imagine ourselves and environment in a pure form, we de-construct our strongly entrenched prejudices that create a sense of imperfection.

Take a broken cup for instance. To a person who is attached to the concept of cup as a drinking utensil, it is an imperfect object. Yet, for someone who has never seen a cup, it is no less inferior than a complete cup. In fact, a photographer might prefer the broken item as it provides an interesting subject for his work. Likewise, an insect will be as happy to rest on one as the other.

In this way, we understand that values aren’t inherent to the object itself, but are imposed by our prejudices. Ultimately, all phenomena are just a combination of the five elements and, as such, are pure and unstained.

Dividing phenomena into rigid categories of good, bad or neutral is the engine that drives the wheel of suffering. Deities and other figures used in visualization practices are expedient means to break this habit and correct our view. They are not gods, but representatives of our innate goodness of heart.

In respect to your request, perhaps you could undertake the Thirty-seven Practices of Bodhisattvas that were explained in a former edition of this Q&A column. In addition, the Mahayana practices of the six paramitas are also focused on transforming the mind in everyday situations and contain no ritual or visualization practices.

‘Para’ means ‘the other shore’, while ‘Mita’ is ‘one who goes there’. So, paramita means ‘one who reaches the other shore’. They are also known as the six transcendental actions as they offer a means to transcend the conventional concepts of virtue and non-virtue. The six practices are generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation and wisdom.

There is a tendency to recoil when we hear words like patience or discipline. We imagine a strict teacher wielding a stick and telling us that patience is a virtue and that we need more discipline. This attitude could not be further from the spirit of the paramitas. They are not moralist in anyway, but rooted in wisdom and insight.

Morals or ethics deprived of wisdom can cause more harm than good. For example, when we decide that something is bad, whose definition do we adopt? The traditional courtship methods in Eastern Bhutan might be considered immoral in the conservative Middle East. Yet, within the context of Bhutanese society they are perfectly acceptable. That all things are impermanent and compounded and that emotions based on dualistic view cause suffering are basic facts. They were not invented by anyone. Action that flows from this wisdom is not dogmatic, but spacious and flexible. This is the way in which we should work with the practices.

Let’s explore the first paramita. Fear is at the heart of being stingy. We are afraid, and so we hoard. Generosity challenges these fears. It has nothing to do with economic status, but is a state of mind.

Once a wealthy monarch invited the Buddha and his monks for a feast. Although the king had done a great deed, it was revealed that an old beggar woman standing at the gate had gained the most merit from the occasion. Rather than being jealous, she had been overjoyed that the king could serve the Buddha in this way. Among all gathered, she possessed the most generous heart.

All our lives we’ve employed attachment, aggression, arrogance and jealousy to maintain the walls of ego’s fortress. Yet, the structure has no more substance that a sand castle. Generosity provides a means to de-construct our self-obsession. As a result, we confidently dismiss the builders and let the walls crumble. Suddenly, it is as if we are on top of a mountain, with the deep blue sky and lush valleys meeting at the horizon. In this way we connect with our innate goodness of heart.

All the paramitas should be undertaken in this spirit. They are not moral injunctions, but practices aimed at undermining the illusion of a permanent and separate self. In this respect, the first four paramitas must be connected to meditation and wisdom. When we meditate, for example, we renounce worldly prejudices. Whatever arises, we allow it to pass. Generosity born from this practice is not moralistic, but spacious and all encompassing. Likewise, in order to develop a meditation practice we need the qualities of patience, discipline and enthusiasm.

Wisdom means insight into the interdependent and impermanent nature of self and other. Deprived of this view, the paramitas cannot lead to enlightenment, but merely operate on a mundane level. Wisdom infuses them with transcendental qualities. In this way, ‘one who reaches the other shore’ is both the name of these practices and their epithet.
I made a vow at a temple to quit taking drugs. Unfortunately, I broke it. Now I worry about the consequences.

I’ll answer the question in separate parts. Regarding the karmic consequences of your action, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche has said: “The only virtue of negative karma is that it can be purified. In fact, there is nothing that cannot be purified, even the most apparently heinous deed.”

While there are many ways to purify karma, perhaps the most effective is the four powers: the power of support, the power of regret, the power of resolution and the power of the antidote.

First is to confess the negative action to a support, second is to express our remorse, third is to make a commitment never to repeat the negative action and fourth is to practice virtue as an antidote. Confessing in this way can completely purify negative karma.

Why do we need support? Well, think of the mind like a pane of glass and negative karma like mud smeared on that pane. As the mud is not part of the original structure, it can be cleaned away. The mind is the same. Negative karma is not part of the mind. Like mud, it was not there originally, and so can be removed. In the case of glass, we might use detergent, water and a cloth as a cleaning agent or support. For our mind, we visualize a sublime being.

Some people might wonder why we use a sublime being as a support rather than a friend or our own guru in his common form. Well, with a fellow human we might think, “Ah, he won’t know about this and that”, and so we are tempted to conceal certain details. With a Buddha or our guru in the form of a deity, we will not have this reservation, and so will fully expose our negative action. Like a wound, negative karma can be cleaned when exposed and treated. It festers when left hidden.

While deities like Vajrasattva serve as excellent supports for our purification practice, it’s important that they are not taken as external gods. In reality, they are just representations of our innate goodness of heart. This is the reason that the support deity and practitioner merge at the conclusion of a visualization practice.

Expressions such as cleaning, purification or removing defilements often arouse a sense of anguish. We are reminded of a trip to the dentist to extract a decayed tooth or the neglected task of cleaning our room. In this respect, it is perhaps preferable to emphasize the element of ‘drawing closer’. In the same way that each wipe of the pane of glass reveals more of the original inner brightness, so each practice of Vajrasattva uncovers more of our innate goodness of heart.

An empowerment and complete explanation from a qualified lama is required before beginning Vajrasattva practice.

On another level, you need to consider the root of your addiction. Excessive use of alcohol or drugs is often a way to avoid reality. We feel lonely, we pick up a bottle. We feel bored, we flip a tablet in our mouth. Initial relief soon turns to suffering as we surrender control to dependency. We are on a slippery slope that becomes increasingly difficult to leave.

So, what is the alternative? Instead of immediately reacting to a sense of discomfort, just watch it. It is impossible for anyone to pass through life without ever feeling bored or depressed. It is like driving to Kurtoe and expecting to always be on high mountain passes. It is unrealistic. Sometimes we will be high among drifting clouds. At other times, we will pass through narrow, dark valleys. Mountains and valleys co-exist. We cannot have one without the other. The trick is to accept every kind of terrain as equally part of the journey. In this way, we are enriched by all aspects of life.

Therefore, next time we feel bored or depressed, we should refrain from cracking open a can of beer or even switching on the TV. Instead, just watch the sensation without judgment.

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