This continues from this article, In praise of integrity. And talking of pedestals, a good friend of mine went to the same high school as John Cleese, and told me this tale about him. In front of the school is a tall pillar, on which Field Marshall Haig had stood for almost a hundred years, until parents and guests turned up to graduation one year to find footsteps leading from the pillar to the building and back again… Even famous commanders can’t live on a pedestal, but have to get down to use the restroom sooner or later.
The 8 worldly concerns (attached to receiving praise, pleasure, a good reputation, and gain, and aversion to their opposite) are insidious and very damaging. Practicing Buddhism, or Dharma, under their influence, with an impure motivation, is said to be like eating healthy food mixed with poison – we might derive some short-term benefit but in the long-term we’re going to be in pain. In his book Joyful Path, Geshe Kelsang says:
What’s more, as the scriptures say, the higher we are in the tree of ambition, the thinner the branches, and the further we have to fall.
You do know this is not it?
“That was good, but you do know this is not it?” The words spoken by his friend to a prominent teacher in my Buddhist tradition, the New Kadampa Tradition, after he had just finished teaching at a large Festival. The teacher was telling me this, saying how glad he had friends around him to keep him real so that he did not become “doped up” on praise, love, or prostration mudras. Teaching success is no substitute for spiritual success.
We were also chatting about what happens when we become so unused to criticism by dint of a high position that, if we’re not careful, it becomes harder and harder to handle criticism when it does come our way – clearly the opposite of what is supposed to happen for a Kadampa!
Praise etc doesn’t help us while we have it, and once we’re off our pedestal it quickly dries up as well. If we have come to depend on it we’re in trouble, and if it has become part of our self-image we’ll have to pretty much reinvent ourselves.
I believe that the 8 worldly concerns stop spiritual progress. It is easier to make progress when you feel normal, like everyone else, rather than special. Lucky, yes, perhaps, but special, no. Pride drives a wedge between us and those we are trying to help, which is one reason there’s so much emphasis on humility for Bodhisattvas.
I like this Alanis Morrissette lyric as it speaks to me of genuinely spiritual people, such as a Bodhisattva, who are the only ones who really deserve to be on a pedestal, though you’ll never catch them up there:
And I am fascinated by the spiritual man;
I am humbled by his humble nature.
The main job
Always being in performance mode can be bad for one’s own practice. The Buddhas can take us wherever we want to go, but we don’t need to keep looking over our shoulder to see if others are watching us. I once visited Geshe Kelsang seeking advice on something, and just by way of preamble I stated what I thought was the obvious: “I know that my main job is to teach Dharma, but …”
I could not get another word out of my mouth as he interrupted me, quite forcibly:
Your main job is practicing Dharma. Everything else will follow naturally from that.
That has been true for me on many levels, and it makes more sense to me with each passing year. My main job is being a practitioner first and whatever else second.
If we feel that our job is inherently worthy, and feel carried along by it, this can make us lazy in training our minds and undermine our inner development by allowing worldly concerns to creep in. And the worst part? We might not even realize this is happening, while the precious years for practice pass us by.
There are numerous stories in the Buddhist scriptures of people being expelled or otherwise leaving their high or cushy positions in the monastery or society to go off on their ownsome to gain realizations, and to me these are an inspiring example of the need to let go of the eight worldly concerns even whilst we stay amongst others.
Flavor of the month
It really doesn’t matter whether or not we are flavor of the month. It does matter whether or not we stick to our principles of compassion and wisdom. And if these are our principles, rather than the 8 worldly concerns, this allows a lot of room for flexibility in accordance with the changing needs of others. For example, Geshe Kelsang has shown extraordinary month-by-month flexibility in adapting Buddhism from the reclusive monastic situation in Tibet to the connected, transparent modern world without sacrificing his principles and seemingly caring not a jot for the 8 worldly concerns.
Humility helps us remain flexible even as we stick to what we know is right, not just fashionable. Also, true change comes from inside, not from changing others; so we can be tolerant of others’ shortcomings whilst overcoming our own. As Atisha says, in what I regard as one of the most helpful all-time Buddhist quotes:
Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.
Don’t you think this means not just in general, but also on a rigorous daily basis, knowing what our mind is doing and taming our own delusions before we go trying to tame others?
Shrinking or expanding world?
The 8 worldly concerns shrink our world and I think can make us institutionalized if we take our small world a little too seriously — whether this is the world of our family and friends, our business or workplace, or even our place of worship. To expand our world again we can remember that we’ll be leaving this life soon; we have at most a few hundred months left before we find ourselves in our next life. Remembering death and impermanence is the antidote to the 8 worldly concerns.
Can you remember back to this time last year, what were your overriding concerns/anxieties/things you really wanted? Are they the same today? Fast forward to this time next year, will the concerns/anxieties/things you really want today still be the same then? If the answer is no, as it pretty generally is, I find this helps me let go of worrying about whatever I happen to be currently worrying about, for it seems a waste of mental energy! We can relax instead into what endures year after year, our spiritual journey.
We can also broaden our horizons by developing bodhichitta, changing what we really want out of life by contemplating every day how wonderful it would actually be to have freedom from all mistaken, suffering appearances and the ability to help each and every living being. (With bodhichitta motivation, putting a crumb on a bird table is far more valuable and satisfying than giving a diamond out of attachment to the 8 worldly concerns. That example from Joyful Path shows how, if we change what we want, life can actually become simpler and deeper at the same time!)
Everything is deceptive, except for…
Wisdom: Everything is moreorless deceptive while we have ignorance – things are never exactly as they appear, and when we have strong delusions or agitated minds, such as the 8 worldly concerns, we can be sure that what we are seeing has very little resemblance to what’s really going on. Therefore, we need to rely on the wisdom of emptiness to do away with the false appearance of inherent existence, understanding that the things we normally see do not exist.
Compassion: The other day, I mentioned to J on the stairs in passing: “Everything is deceptive except wisdom.” He looked at me with his big eyes and asked, “And love?” And he is right. Love itself doesn’t grasp at an inherently existent person, its object is simply wishing others happiness, which is the great protector against suffering for ourselves and the people around us. Compassion is our love focused on others’ suffering, wishing them to be freed from it. Our so-called “method” minds of renunciation, love, compassion, patience, and so on are entirely more trustworthy than our attachment and aversion, and they keep us sane and happy, hence the Kadampa motto:
I count myself lucky to know people with lots of integrity, who’re trying their best to change for the better, every day. They are flexible, but not blown about by the changing winds of how things are done or not done this week, month, or year, at the expense of common sense or indeed basic human kindness; they are not sticklers for rules for rules’ own sake. They are more inspired by the enduring rules of wisdom and compassion.
We can always find our way if we stick to wisdom and compassion.