An article co-written by a friend and me.
One of Buddha Shakyamuni’s qualities is that he has love and compassion without discrimination. Sometimes we fantasize about Buddha’s time, as if it was always peaceful and magical. But the truth is that Buddha went against the grain of his society and invited everyone into the spiritual community — men, women, kings, queens, those of the lowest caste, those shunned by society, even thieves and murderers. This speaks to the foundation of the teachings — that they are for everyone. These teachings, which provide freedom, provide this freedom for everyone. It was powerful then and it is powerful now.
Tibet was pretty feudal, not the most progressive society in the world by any means. Although there were spiritual masters and Yoginis of staggering power, Dharma teachings and teachers were largely confined to the monasteries; and for whatever reason society as a whole was static for centuries. We have a better opportunity than practitioners in Tibet to use Buddhist ideas to make a difference in our world because we are already democratic in theory and because of modern communications. The last time that Venerable Geshe Kelsang, originally from Tibet, visited the States, he praised Western countries:
I find in Western countries very good examples. For example, in Europe and in America, according to their constitutions, everyone is equal. They’ve even made it into law. There is equal education, equal rights, equal freedom for free speech, no discrimination between different races, no discrimination between different religions.
On paper at least we are doing very well, and this is actually a wonderful achievement. The truth is that you cannot find one single person who is more important than everyone else, or even more important than anyone else. We are equal. We believe it in principle. However, as we know, we don’t always believe or live this truth in practice. Why? Geshe Kelsang explained:
It is so difficult to put this law into practice because we cannot help but discriminate naturally. Due to our self-cherishing mind thinking “I am important” and ignoring others’ happiness, even though the law says everyone is to be treated equally we are not doing this practically. The government constitutions saying “Everyone is equal” looks like a Mahayana Buddhist idea; but we can’t do it practically.
When Gen-la Dekyong was talking about this in this year’s Summer Festival, she said we need to check inside our heart: “Am I discriminating that everyone is equal? When we think I, I, mine, mine, we naturally cherish that I, thinking it is most important, and neglect others.” As Geshe-la says:
We can’t practice equality if we have never trained in thinking ‘Self-cherishing is bad. It causes problems and suffering.’ Thus the constitution is the law and Mahayana Buddhism is the practice of this law.
As Buddha’s ideas spread into the modern world at large, where everything is connected, we now have a new and inspiring opportunity to use them to reshape our society and become truly democratic. Everyone can make use of these ideas, not just Buddhists, for they are in many ways just super-charged common sense.
Over to my co-writer again for some very helpful suggestions on how we can get started.
Equalizing self and others
If we want to move from division to unity, if we want true equality, one way is to practice equalizing self and others. We can contemplate this for example:
Just as we value our own peace and happiness, so too should we value the peace and happiness of all living beings; and just as we work to free ourself from suffering and problems, so too should we work to free others. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
If we’re going to get to true or actual equality, equalizing is what we each need to practice. This is a very deep attitude, a deep spiritual conversion of our heart. Believing that other people’s happiness is equally or at least as important as our own, we will really help them and pray for them.
If we all go deep into this, how would it affect the people around us? How would our world change as a result? I think our personal world would change immensely, and the immediate world of our family and community would also change. Our contribution, our influence, would be powerful.
We need to examine our own perceptions and attitudes through introspection or meditation; this is our responsibility. What about those who are not doing this though, who are careless with their self-cherishing, who don’t even know or care that they have it?
The only appropriate response to those who are driven by their delusions to harm others is compassion. Sometimes it is necessary to force those who are behaving in very deluded ways to stop both for their own sake and to protect other people, but it is never appropriate to blame or become angry with them. ~ Eight Steps
Which means to hate them. We know this. To hate someone who is acting out of ignorance or hatred is no better. It is no solution. It is a deeper transformation of our mind to see that people are being harmed by their hatred as opposed to being their hatred. It takes the wisdom born from meditation to really see the difference between a delusion and a person. It’s not intellectual.
We are all family
Right now, there’s a lot of division. Broadly speaking, we have friends, we have people we don’t like, and we have a huge group inbetween for whom we feel nothing at all. This is all mis-identification because, according to Buddha, we are all family. We have all been each others’ mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters a million times over. Through the countless rebirths we have had, we’ve changed our relationships repeatedly. We have taken a different rebirth now, but that doesn’t mean the connection we’ve had is gone — it does still exist. We are connected deeply.
Along with this basic category of friends, enemies, and strangers, we further divide ourselves up in so many different ways: by culture, race, sexual preferences, politics, income, and more. So then what happens? We develop attachment for the people who seem to be like us or who agree with us. And we develop unpleasant feelings — maybe even hatred — for people who do not seem to be like us or who do not subscribe to our views. Doesn’t this sound like what we do!? We create division. We’re fractured.
Just to get profound for a bit … on the deepest level, the origins of these classifications and divisions are what we call “dualistic appearance” and “dualistic grasping.” There’s the truth or reality of me, and there’s also what appears to be me. We see these two things to be separate when they are not.
For example when you go to work there’s a professional you in your uniform, then when you go home there’s an at-home you in your old comfy jeans. The professional you is not different from the at-home you — they are just different aspects of what appears to be you. The truth of you is that you are undefined and unlimited in aspects. Gardening you, jogging you, angry you, happy you. There are so many aspects or appearances of you! All of these “you’s” are unified in your truth, which is what Buddha called your emptiness.
One way to look at it is this — you are truly empty of definition. You are the unlimited possibility of emptiness. It’s a very positive liberating emptiness!
Your emptiness, or lack of true definition, is how the many aspects or appearances of you are possible in the first place. For the sake of argument, if you really were just one of these aspects entirely, defined only in that one way, the other aspects of you would be impossible. However, how you live your varied life every day in all these aspects tells you what’s really going on.
All of these modes of you, these ways of being, exist because of your lack of true definition. Your unlimited true nature (your emptiness) and your various aspects are unified. However we normally perceive these two, our emptiness and our aspects, as two different things, which is called dualistic appearance or mistaken appearance. Out of deep habit we believe this difference or inner division to be true, which is called dualistic grasping. From The Mirror of Dharma:
When we see our body, in truth we see only the emptiness of our body because the real nature of our body is its emptiness. However, we do not understand this because of our ignorance. We normally see our body as something that exists from its own side. This is mistaken appearance. ~ The Mirror of Dharma
Whether talking about our body or our self, we are perceiving something that is true as well as something that is not true. We perceive our emptiness, because emptiness is our true way of being, yet we don’t apprehend or relate to it. Instead we see and relate to an ordinary limited self that is independent in its way of being.
For example, we can think “I’m stuck,” and have this strong sense of a limited real self, yet not understand how that sense of self depends upon our way of thinking and is therefore empty of being stuck, not really stuck! Our mind is obscured by confusion, although the truth is already before us.
If our confused mind is creating division in ourself at a very deep level, you better believe it’s going to divide everyone and everything else up too. However, due to Buddha’s great and practical wisdom, we can remedy this situation. We can become whole — individually and collectively.
If we believe that there is an independent me or self, then this means there’s an independent you or other too. We have divided ourselves into independent me and independent you. Or into real, or actual, self and other.
Then come the many layers of classification and division that pile on from that ignorance. We believe in so many things that don’t exist from their own side! We put everything into separate boxes, not seeing their interconnection and 100 percent mutual dependence. Understanding the origin point of the mistake, we can address it or abandon it, as Buddha explains fully in the four noble truths.
Uprooting systemic ignorance
Samsara, from a Buddhist definition, is the cycle of impure life — a life that is created by this dualistic self-grasping ignorance along with the self-centeredness (Me first!) that goes with it. This world that we normally see is definitely impure life — created, controlled, and perpetuated by ignorance. It is not so hard to see this truth when it is pointed out. The root of samsara is deep, deep systemic ignorance, and it is therefore pervaded by systemic division and systemic inequality.
The inequality that we see in society is a manifestation of the deep levels of samsaric divisiveness. Because in the origin point of our thinking there is a false duality, everything else is a projection of this duality, this separation, this division. However, instead of believing in an objective or actual “self” and “other” — or an independent me divided from an independent you — we can learn to see ourselves as gathered together into one. Parts of a whole. Unified in truth.
Going back to equalizing, we can see for a start that each one of us is interconnected in a dimensionless, huge, universal wish to be happy and free. We are unified or one in this wish. We can easily begin to overcome our mistaken divisiveness by seeing and feeling that we are all interconnected rather than independent. It’s so necessary, because this view of independence is literally killing us.
Geshe Kelsang says:
Loving others is principally an attitude of mind. The way in which we express it depends upon the needs, wishes, and situations of each individual as well as our karmic connection with them. We cannot physically care for everyone, but we can develop a caring attitude towards all beings. This is the main point of training the mind.
We can spend weeks, months, our whole life on deeply seeing others’ happiness and freedom as important as our own, and developing a caring attitude towards them. If we can do this, we will move beyond division. When we do this, we become someone who creates harmony, who creates peace, who can repair trouble. We become more and more fearless, an abolitionist of inequality. We have the methods. We’ve got such clear instruction that holds incredible power. We’ve got the wish and people are waiting.
Over to you. Please leave your comments and questions for us in the comments so we can answer them.