Given that we have to go to work and/or hang out and/or social media (verb yet?) with lots of other people, there are umpteen opportunities in our modern lives to observe the Bodhisattva’s vow, where we take personal responsibility to travel the path to enlightenment for the sake of others by practicing the six perfections.
Just to retrace our steps for a moment …
When we develop a compassion that wishes to free everyone permanently from their suffering, it doesn’t take much to figure out that we can’t actually do that while remaining limited, identifying “Me” on the basis of only this impure & ordinary body and mind.
I was just thinking today, for example — when someone was mildly complaining that they never saw me — that although I too would like to hang out with them all the time, there is just one of me. And how much handier it would be if there were more of me, so I could be in more than one place at a time.
So that got me to thinking, “Hmmm, how can I get around this problem and have more time and fun with everyone?! I mean, Skype and FaceTime have their uses, but still …
Wait, I have an idea! A Buddha can be everywhere all at once, and help and bless not just a small circle of friends, but each and every living being every day – that’s her job description! I’m going to use this life to become a Buddha.”
With that conclusion, we have generated bodhichitta. Then we engage practically in the six perfections with this big, beautiful motivation, working on different levels as mentioned in this last article.
Within that, I find it very encouraging to know that with the six perfections there is always something we can be doing to solve our own and others’ problems.
#2 Moral discipline
This second perfection, that of moral discipline or ethical behavior, includes avoiding negativity and benefiting others. As a rule of thumb, we can ask ourselves before doing stuff:
“Is this action going to help or harm others? If it will harm them, I won’t do it.”
This question can free us from hypocrisy, ie, saying one thing and doing another, and keep us real. We can become a shining light on the hill through the power of our genuine example.
#3 Patient acceptance
And we can be patient when things and people don’t work out; for example, when they ignore or cannot receive our help, and fall over into the swamp despite our best attempts to prevent this.
Avoiding the downfalls of the Bodhisattva vow
As well as training in the six perfections, the Bodhisattva vow also entails avoiding the 46 secondary and 18 root downfalls related to these six, many of which I find refreshingly appropriate to our modern society. I thought I’d share a fairly random selection, in the hopes you are inspired to find out all about them in the book The Bodhisattva Vow.
Enjoying ourselves more
One of the downfalls related to the perfection of giving, “Indulging in worldly pleasures out of attachment,” reminds me that it is not our work that is currently distracting us from making spiritual progress, helping other people, or even enjoying ourselves, but our attachment to externals! This doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy our lives, but that we can enjoy our lives with bodhichitta motivation.
A few weeks ago I was at the beautiful Echo Lake in Colorado with my friend and he said, “I would love to bring a busload of kids from the south side of Chicago up here.” We can always invite others in, mentally, to our enjoyments — “May all beings enjoy such Pure Lands”, as we say in the mandala offering.
This makes our enjoyments instantly meaningful, good karma, and, in my experience, more blissful.
Plus, if we actually have some bodhichitta, we may find we have more energy to immerse into interesting Dharma books and classes, and less energy to waste on social media and TV 😉 Even changing that direction to go inward a little bit can help a lot, I have found.
Related to the perfection of giving, we also need to avoid “Not replying to others”, which basically means “we try to make others’ minds happy by giving suitable answers and advice.” We don’t have to be appointed as a teacher or sit on a throne to share our experiences – we can talk about these ideas wherever we go, whenever we are with others who are receptive. For example, if someone at work is suffering from jealousy or anxiety, we can give them common-sense advice on rejoicing and finding some peace, without having to use any of the Buddhist terminology.
Avoiding time suck
Similarly, it is not engaging in the world that is sucking up all our precious time, it is our distractions. This is implied by the fact that Bodhisattvas “accept gifts” and “accept invitations” whenever they can! Related to the perfection of moral discipline, they also avoid “Doing little to benefit others” – not “needlessly shunning wealth, reputation, or involvement with other people.” With bodhichitta, we can increase our wealth and reputation provided we use it to help others.
Also related to moral discipline, Bodhisattvas promise to “help others avoid negativity,” “go to the assistance of those in need”, “take care of the sick”, “act to dispel suffering”, “help others to overcome their bad habits”, and so on. You can read about all of these if you get a moment. Lovely.
And then, if you are still interested, do check out the vows and commitments of training the mind in the book Universal Compassion. These also give modern-day people like me a lot of practical advice on working on many levels to bring both temporary and ultimate help.
Crucially, perhaps — if we never lose sight of our main aim of attaining enlightenment for the benefit of every living being, then, regardless of how many things don’t work out or “go wrong”, nothing will be wasted. Every single day will be a step in the right direction.
Who around here couldn’t use some support? So I wanted to say a bit more about the different levels on which we can help others, following on from this article about the swamp of samsara.
The way I see it is that we need to do stuff everyday, anyway, and — whatever it is we do — why not make it really count by doing it motivated by renunciation for the suffering yet unreal nature of samsara? (Our motivations determine the outcome of our actions, or karma.)
With renunciation like this, we won’t get heavy-hearted or anxious. Why? Because we have given up on our attachment to things working out in this swamp of samsara, and therefore each day we have nothing to lose. We just need to try, not worry. This swamp may have a shallow end, where people can stand, and a deep end, where people are drowning; but it is all basically swampish. Luckily, this swamp is also just mere imputation or label of mind, which means that when we transform our minds through wisdom, it will disappear, Poof!, like last night’s dream.
So, with renunciation on others’ behalf (aka compassion), we can help in whatever way we think of, on different levels. Nothing is too small or too trivial – any more than helping someone to tread an inch to the right, avoid the snapping teeth, or find a stepping stone is trivial if they are scared or drowning. It is not the final answer to this person’s problems, but it is still important to them and therefore to us. In the same way, we can give people the necessities of food, shelter, medicine, & protection, work toward a fairer and more humane society, and so on.
The six perfections
The Bodhisattva is the Mahayana Buddhist role model, and a better role model would be hard to find.
He or she trains in the so-called “six perfections” – giving, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration/meditation, and wisdom.
These six practices are called “perfections” because they are motivated by the mind of enlightenment, aka bodhichitta, which is the wish to realize our potential for enlightenment so that we can lead all living beings without exception to that state of lasting happiness.
In other words, we want to wake ourselves up from the hallucinations of samsara, become an “Awakened One” aka “Buddha”, so that we can go about waking everyone else up too.
The Bodhisattva’s aim is therefore two-fold: (1) to help others as much as possible both practically and spiritually right now, and (2) to get daily closer to the inner light of omniscience, with its power to bless each and every being every day, so we can free them all for good.
The first three perfections, largely applicable to our daily actions, lend themselves to helping people navigate their way to safety, to the shallow end as it were; albeit still submerged for now in the swamp of samsara. All the while we can be motivated by the wish to get them onto the dry land of liberation, where they are forever safe from suffering.
Giving (or, really, giving back) includes giving material things AND giving Dharma teachings or advice. We can help people at work — and with our work — in any way that seems suitable, sometimes with material help to improve individual or societal well being, and sometimes with non-judgmental skillful advice that people can use to transform their thoughts.
Buddha’s teachings are divided into wisdom teachings, which are basically his teachings on emptiness, and method teachings, which are basically everything else. We can start using both to help others.
For example, with Buddha’s advice on interdependence, we can show how we could all better navigate this swamp by mending our fractured society of small, selfish, isolated Me’s by joining up in caring, cooperative, connected teams of We instead.
Or we could explain how not to mistake other people for their delusions, but see them as victims of their confusion and anger etc., just as we are, and so stay loving and patient.
We could also encourage people to witness and take refuge in their own and others’ good hearts and pure, peaceful minds. Knowing that we all have immense spiritual depth and potential, we can help others identify with that rather than their false, limited, suffering sense of self.
We can demonstrate with our own example how changing direction to go inwards for peace is not a selfish escape, but paradoxically connecting us more more and more deeply with everyone else “out there”.
It seems to me as though the method teachings are the way to get people to the shallow end of samsara’s vast swamp, where they at least have their heads above water. But the only way to lift them out of the swamp altogether is with Buddha’s wisdom teachings. As Buddha Maitreya puts it:
Because living beings’ minds are impure, their worlds are impure.
All the time we are practicing giving and the other perfections, we know in our heart that we are trying to get people to a place where they can realize it is all just the impure dream of an impure mind. This way, they can wake up and create a world of their own choosing out of the bliss and emptiness of their own purified mind. And then they can pull everyone out onto dry land as well.
By the way, we don’t have to sit on a throne to give good advice. We don’t have to be a Dharma millionaire yet, either, as Geshe Kelsang once put it – we just need a few spare dollars in our pocket. Any Dharma we have, we can give, and we will never run out. We don’t have to use Dharma terminology, of course. We can use the language that works for whoever we are talking to. We can use the language of the heart.
We can also give fearlessness, time, attention, and love. Even — or sometimes especially — our practice of meditation is giving others fearlessness and love, holding the space for them. There is a beautiful video that seems to demonstrate this … check out the brief footage of our Kadampa nun in Mexico 😊
And I think we can do all this giving without judgment, as explained for example in this article about giving unconditionally to homeless people, though that might be a subject for another day.
We are really learning to give of ourselves, to let go of keeping ourselves to ourselves, staying small and poky. Giving is a big beautiful shining open-hearted practice that brings real joy to our own and others’ lives.
More on the other perfections and related practical advice in the next article …
I am pretty fond of a lot of people in Florida. And I noticed the sigh of relief as Hurricane Irma downsized to a Cat 3 and then a tropical storm, and Tampa Bay seemed sort of spared, for now.
How many sighs of relief remain to us, as we dodge another bullet, even as the dangers get closer, even as others around us are falling to the ground?
Catastrophes are what happen to other people. That’s what we all think, until they happen to us.
Do you ever wonder if we might be sleepwalking through a very perilous time in human history, where we are in genuine danger of our planet collapsing if we don’t blow ourselves up first?! That the adults have all left the room!? And that these things may just be creeping up on us – and one day we’ll wake up to find … ?!
Look, I’m not a fear monger (well, maybe a little bit). Like a lot of us, I’m in the habit of switching channels and pretending none of it is happening, that me and you (especially me, lol) are perfectly safe. I’ve been trying to hold onto this complacency since beginningless time, after all, and old habits die hard. But for some reason I can’t this (life)time. I may want to keep seeing samsara as a pleasure garden, but in this life it is (for me) revealing its true colors. Which is great, in fact, because it means I am not condemned to stay here for ever and ever. And, if I play my cards right, nor are my friends.
One of my favorite quotes in Buddhism, which I stumbled upon 3 decades ago in Meaningful to Behold, seems more and more relevant with each passing year:
We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking.
A new disaster baseline
I just read this:
Even if America joins a global effort to ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible, as we surely must, we have already locked in a new disaster baseline, and will have to spend a lot to repair and adapt. ~ The Week
And a friend of mine has been collating the shifts in the climate as part of his work as a Futurist checking trends:
The historic heatwave that just ravaged Eastern Europe.
Historic flooding and mudslides in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Niger.
A massive earthquake off the Mexican coast.
Record radiation from the sun due to unusual sun spots activity.
Bigger and more intense hurricanes striking the United States
Political instability in the US, Syria, Venezuela and 15 other places around the globe.
Historic fires in California, Oregon, British Columbia, Washington, Greenland and Tunisia.
And all of this over the past 60 days.
Buddha Shakyamuni and many Buddhist teachers who followed him predicted these difficult, turbulent, “degenerate times” in this human world. And Geshe Kelsang — who is certainly not an irrational fear-monger nor prophet of doom, but the most sane, realistic, and hopeful person I’ve ever met — has also been trying to wake us up for decades, saying things like:
Superficially it looks as if our world is improving, but if we look a little more deeply we shall see that there are now many problems that never existed before. Terrifying weapons have been invented, our environment is being poisoned, and new diseases are appearing. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness
The result of an unbridled pursuit of happiness from external sources is that our planet is being destroyed and our lives are becoming more complicated and dissatisfying. It is time we sought happiness from a different source.
Time indeed. And that is not even taking into account the scary nature of other, lower realms in samsara and the distinct possibility that we could end up there after we breathe our final breath. Countless people are already trapped there.
So, what are we going to do?
I have so much I want to discuss on this subject these days that I have given myself writer’s block and haven’t written in weeks – I just don’t know where to start! But because I think the option of just getting all peaceful ourselves while doing nothing to help others is in fact no option at all, maybe I’ll start with that. (And now I can see I have written too much for one blog article, oops, but perhaps you can read it in installments, if you still have power after that hurricane.)
There have been a couple of articles recently questioning whether mindfulness has been co-opted and cheapened. Such as this one, which explores how “Pasteurized versions of the ancient practice of mindfulness are now big business”:
And this is perhaps the crux of the problem of the mindless application of Buddhist meditation practice: the marketing of mindfulness as a solution to work stress and life balance rather than the complex spiritual approach to living it is meant to be.
Mindfulness is a way of living, not a substitute for taking action. If we truly become mindful of our existence, then our recurrent anxieties become not just a wave we watch pass through our minds, not something to be mastered in order to be a better servant, but a call to take action in order to be more fully alive.
We’ve marketed an ancient Indian tradition as an antidote to stress, but traditional Buddhist meditation has two objectives: to become more compassionate, and gain insight into the true nature of reality. But meditating to gain compassion seems to have got lost in translation.
If people get interested in Buddhist teachings via “mindfulness” courses, I am all for it. I am actually grateful that contemplation and meditation are going mainstream in the Western world. And although very few people initially go to meditation classes to do any more than chill out and learn to relax, I am of course good with that, even if that is as far as they want to go.
But … I think it is important to let people know that there is infinitely more we can do with these teachings. People do often leave pleasantly surprised after sampling the low-hanging fruit, and more open to trying new things. Buddhism is not just a lifestyle choice to help us cope and escape, with no real bearing on ending suffering – the goal is all about ending suffering, wherever it is, and whoever it belongs to, because suffering hurts. And I would argue that our current times both reveal and request this engagement of us.
Meditation has in many cases become a type of therapy that shouts “Me, me, me” and entirely misses the point. Disengagement and self-absorption are not what are needed right now, not in this short window of opportunity we have to make a difference.
Stress reduction is necessary, as I have explained in this article, and it is essential to start by tuning into and identifying with the peaceful nature of our own minds; but becoming happier ourselves is only a means to a far, far greater end. Breathing meditation and so on help us still the mind, and from that place we have the space to apply the practical philosophy.
We do like doing this in the West, don’t we – stripping a philosophy out of its context for a simplistic quick fix. “Mindfulness with all the awkward Buddhist bits taken out” as a Guardian article recently put it. However, this cultural appropriation to a lowest common denominator, in the service of our “Me first” culture, implicitly underestimates modern humans’ capacity to rise above their egocentrism and transform themselves and their world entirely. The quick fix mentality means that people are potentially missing out so much, “starving themselves of the best bits” as someone who claims to have done that for years told me recently.
But I don’t think Geshe Kelsang Gyatso could ever be accused of cheapening or watering down Buddhism in this way. In the last 40 years and counting, he’s been doing exactly the opposite, building up the Sangha, Centers, and study programs with 100% confidence that modern students can gain the same liberation and enlightenment as all the practitioners of old. His teachings are entirely in keeping with that of qualified, realized Buddhist teachers dating back in an unbroken lineage to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, with their emphasis on renunciation (wanting lasting mental freedom, not the self-satisfied incremental improvements of samsara), bodhichitta (engaged compassion, not complicity with the status quo), the wisdom realizing emptiness (the strongest medicine in the universe), and the two stages of Highest Yoga Tantra (taking us so far beyond our limitations and ordinariness). These teachings can bring about universal happiness and world peace; it is simply a matter of applying them.
(And need I add that no personal profit is made from any of the teachings and so they are a great deal less expensive than many mindfulness courses. Just sayin’.)
I have been very inspired this summer by the new International Kadampa Retreat Center, Grand Canyon. It has 75 rooms and plenty of room to grow. Like a portal located on the iconic Route 66, the golden roof of its Temple for World Peace (once it’s built) will be glimpsed by millions of tourists every year, giving them at least some food for thought, if not inviting them into the discovery of their wondrous potential as Bodhisattvas.
To echo this article, I think we urgently need to incorporate some Bodhisattva thinking into our world. In one of his earliest books, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso wrote:
Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East. ~ Meaningful to Behold
Whether we are practicing Buddhism Lite or not probably depends most on our motivation, whether it is worldly or spiritual. It depends on how engaged we are in actively overcoming suffering, and I would argue that this depends on how powerful our compassion is.
We need three types of compassion, and the deepest, called “compassion observing the unobservable”, is to help everyone realize that suffering is not real (see Ocean of Nectar, just about to be studied on the STTP). But Bodhisattvas need to, indeed WANT to, solve every problem that they see. They don’t just sit back and watch Netflix passively for hours a day, twiddling their thumbs while Rome burns, excusing themselves: “Look, I did meditate today, but there’s not much I can do about all that suffering anyway, not until I’m a Buddha.” They are passionate and creative about ending suffering, day and night, and will do whatever is in their power.
Geshe Kelsang has also said more recently:
How wonderful it would be for our world if many modern-day practitioners could emulate the training the mind practitioners of ancient times and become actual Bodhisattvas! ~ How to Transform Your Life
I think supporting all our Kadampa Meditation Centers and World Peace Temples worldwide is crucial. They are Bodhisattva factories and — right about now — we need Bodhisattvas.
Extract: “It all starts with a social dialogue, openly considering the Bodhisattva (“friend of the world”) ideal and way of life in all areas of society, not just in Buddhist Centers.”
Do you think world peace is possible? We want your comments on this subject! And please share this article if you can.
It’s fair to say that we live in troubled times. Whether it is the growing divisions in society, the threat of global terrorism, global warming, or the potential for conflict (or indeed all-out war) in parts of the world such as the Middle East and North Korea, it’s clear we live in volatile times. While we may not be expressing it externally so much, it seems to me that many people are living with a sense of quiet hopelessness for the future of humanity and our planet.
Thankfully all is not lost. There is a way we can all emerge stronger and more resilient in spite of the times we live in. Many people have found that within the teachings and practices of Buddha – for example, in the practical, modern Buddhist approach of Kadampa Buddhism – we can find a universal vision of real hope for everyone, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. It also seems there has never been a time in the history of humanity when this vision of hope was more needed, at all levels of society.
Why? It starts with understanding the goal of Buddhism, which is the realization of world peace. Just as importantly, it offers methods to accomplish this vision. To explore how Buddhism offers very real and practical solutions for our troubled world, the key is to be clear about what is the biggest problem we have in the world today. It may surprise you to hear that it’s not the divisions in society, the growing threat of terrorism, or even global warming.
The biggest problem in the world today
The biggest problem in the world today is the current lack of wisdom and compassion in the hearts of living beings. I say the “current” lack of wisdom and compassion because all is by no means lost, and this present situation can truly change. As I will explain below, we can all evolve our current levels of wisdom and compassion, and in this way realize this inspiring vision of hope, a peaceful and harmonious world.
At present, the external problems in our world today – on which we are focusing most of our energies — arise from this inner problem that we largely ignore, our universal lack of wisdom and compassion.
Due to lacking compassion we face many problems on a micro and macro level in society and in our world. Lacking compassion, and due to grasping tightly at what “I want” to be more important than what “you want”, we experience so much conflict and breakdowns in our relationships. Terrorism is the result of a fundamental lack of compassion for others. In this case, what I want or my world view is more important than your life, even if your life happens to be the life of an innocent child.
Every major world religion without exception advocates love and compassion at the very heart of its teachings and way of life. Yet much of the terrorism we see in the world today is carried out in the name of religion. Lacking compassion, we cannot tolerate and embrace the differences in others, whether those differences are based on politics, race, religion, or sexual orientation. A brief glance at the daily news stands testament to the fact that we have never lived in such divided and intolerant times. For too many people today, it seems that if you are not like me, I don’t like you, or indeed I hate you. Also, lacking compassion, we close our hearts and borders to our fellow humans who seek only to live in peace, free from the traumas of war.
Due to lacking wisdom, our elected politicians believe the way to solve potential regional conflicts is to follow a path of diplomacy until that appears to have failed. Then, history shows that the final solution of our leaders seems to be imposing world peace through the force of guns and bombs.
Due to lacking the wisdom that understands the true causes of happiness, the prevailing world view is that we can buy our way to happiness. This leads to the problems of a consumer society working too hard, spending too much, eating too much, drinking too much, and ending up paying for it all in rising debt levels and decreasing physical and mental health and well-being.
When our accumulated stuff does not bring us the happiness and contentment we seek, we discard it. This then ends up on ever-growing land fill sites that contribute to a polluted world and potential global environmental catastrophe.
In reality, as the well-known modern Buddhist teacher and author, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, explains in many of his books:
Happiness is part of our mind that experiences peace of mind, it does not exist outside ourself.
Ironically, the cause of real peace and real happiness is, in essence, simply wisdom and compassion!
A note of caution: it is important that we direct our blame in the right direction, which is never toward other living beings. All too often people get angry at all the angry people they see in the world, which simply perpetuates the problem, never solving it.
Other people are never a valid object of judgment, yet always a valid object of compassion.
Everyone — whether they are painters or politicians — is simply working with their current levels of wisdom and compassion, which sadly at present can often be quite un-evolved. Unless people have consciously trained their minds to grow and strengthen their qualities of wisdom and compassion, it is unrealistic to expect anything better than what we see in our world today.
Everyone everywhere has the same potential
The solution is both simple and profound. As a starting point, as Geshe Kelsang puts it:
If everyone practiced cherishing others, many of the major problems of the world would be solved in a few years.
We have tried everything else — perhaps it is time we embrace a new way of solving the problems we experience in our own lives, society, and world. This is not a nice to have, rather an absolute necessity if we are to successfully navigate our way through these difficult times.
The changes in society and our world need to start with a change in our relationship with ourself. To begin with, we need to come to know through our own experience that we all have the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom already in our hearts.
In truth there is natural and limitless peace and goodness that lies at the heart of humanity and indeed all living beings. Whilst at present this natural peace and goodness is obscured by our negativity and delusions, Buddhist meditation gives us proven methods to connect to and fully liberate this peace and goodness. And we can start right here and now.
How? Any small experience of peace, joy, or good hearted qualities such as love, compassion, and kindness is revealing the essence of who we are, and the potential for who we can all become. In Buddhism, we call this inner potential our “Buddha nature”, and the good news is that everyone has the same potential.
Therefore, the solution to the biggest problem we have in the world today — the lack of wisdom and compassion in the hearts of living beings — is to simply recognize, through our own experience, this universal truth of our own Buddha nature and then learn how to access and fully actualize this potential.
When hope becomes reality
How do we accomplish this? Instead of living from greed, aggression, and intolerance, we need a new vision of how we relate to ourselves, others, and our world.
To put it simply, we need to become a friend of the world. This in the Buddhist tradition is known as the “Bodhisattva” ideal. A Bodhisattva is someone who identifies deeply with their Buddha nature, and motivated by a universal compassion for all and guided by wisdom, views themselves as a friend of the world. On this basis, they dedicate their life to the goal of accomplishing world peace. World peace is when everyone in the world is truly at peace, happy, and free from suffering. This is also enlightenment.
The way to accomplish this is simple yet profound. As Gandhi put it ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. Find real and lasting peace, freedom, and happiness within your own heart (enlightenment) and work to help everyone – without exception – to accomplish the same.
In one of his earliest books, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso wrote:
Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East. ~ Meaningful to Behold
Although written nearly 40 years ago, for me this a compassionate message of real hope for our modern times and troubled world. If we are to solve the problems of our world and make it through these perilous times, people everywhere need to embrace and live at least some aspect of the Bodhisattva ideal. If we can create a shift in the global paradigm, and a lot of people can embrace this ideal even a little, we can change our world beyond recognition.
We shouldn’t see this as an impossible goal, and in fact this kind of change is not entirely new or unnatural to us. It is often in the periods of great darkness in the history of humanity that our Buddha nature seems to manifest as a force of light to oppose this dark, and some aspect of the Bodhisattva mind manifests. For example, the civil rights movement arose as a powerful and compassionate response to the inhumane segregation and repression of the rights of African-Americans. I also vividly recall the outpouring of compassion that arose from the images we saw on our TV’s of the terrible suffering during the Ethiopian famine of the 1980’s. This was the catalyst for the Live Aid concerts and the millions of dollars that were raised at that time, and the humanitarian projects it funded.
However, these positive shifts in humanity’s consciousness and the social movements that arise from these shifts all too often either dissipate or even sometimes turn from compassion to frustration and anger. We still have major racial divisions in the US and around the world, and we all too often turn off our TV screens at the latest global catastrophe or famine due to ‘compassion fatigue’, the result of the present limitations of our compassion and wisdom.
Towards an enlightened society
In my own experience, this is where the modern Buddhist approach can truly help. With its focus on integrating the principles of wisdom and compassion into all aspects of our daily life, and its universal applicability, everyone can learn what it means to live and grow from a truly peaceful, wise, and compassionate heart. This is the Bodhisattva’s way of life. If everyone could do this, one day we will realize this vision of a peaceful and harmonious world. World peace is simply the day when the world is at peace — this is an enlightened society.
The practical way to realize this vision is to create a more enlightened society right here and now. It all starts with a social dialogue, openly considering and practically exploring the Bodhisattva ideal and way of life in all areas of society, not just in Buddhist Centers.
In this way we start a conversation about a better way for humanity and ultimately all living beings. The wonderful thing about Buddhism is that it offers proven meditations and practices for daily life that empower everyone in our society – regardless of your race, religion, or background – to at least begin to live the Bodhisattva’s way of life, right now!
When people in all areas of society — whether you are a father or a mother, a painter or a politician — try their best to live and grow from a genuinely peaceful mind and good heart of wisdom and compassion, we will begin moving towards a truly peaceful world, an enlightened world, and this vision of hope can one day be fully realized.
I am sincerely hoping that it will encourage more conversation around this subject, and not just on this blog but by you talking about compassion and wisdom as a viable answer to the world’s problems with the people around you, wherever you are.
I have met a number of people already finding ways to share these ideas at work and so on, changing people’s lives, and maybe you are one of them? And I am hoping we can collectively find more and more ways to spread these universally applicable solutions far and wide.
Superior intention is not weakened by the kryptonite of attachment or irritation. It is not sidetracked by the flimsy dreams of samsara, our own or others’. People need rescuing, big time, and there is no time to waste.
As Je Tsongkhapa says, in a vivid depiction of our existential status:
Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers,
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,
Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings —
Through contemplating the state of your mothers in conditions such as these,
Generate a supreme mind of bodhichitta. ~ The Three Principal Aspects of the Path
I sometimes think that once we start practicing these visionary Mahayana Buddhist teachings, we become aware of two competing versions of ourselves – the one where we have the brave big picture perspective and the other where we have a pathetic teeny weeny perspective, stymied by those habitual delusions. I might go so far as to say that it is as if we are spiritually schizophrenic – and that we have got to stop buying into the limited, often whiny version of ourselves and instead identify with the big version every day, feeling so lucky in our wish and growing ability to help others.
And we are never alone when we do this. We are in service to all enlightened beings when we decide to help all living beings, just as we are in service to a mother when we decide to help her children. And they in turn will inspire and protect us in all our endeavors. We can feel them all around us and in our hearts.
Tara is a fantastic example of this – remember what she said to Buddha Avalokiteshvara: “Don’t cry. I will help you.” As a friend, D, remarked on this article:
Identifying with limitations and small selves is so 2016! I always think about that Tara story — I get a deeper understanding each time I contemplate it. This time I was thinking how swiftly and quickly she arose when the focus is on others. Not that she doesn’t help when we are experiencing suffering, but her power mostly lies in helping us to help others.
Part of the Bodhisattva’s commitment is to help practically to make things better for everyone wherever possible. The first three perfections are giving, moral discipline, and patience, and these are to be practiced within daily life, at home, at work, everywhere. The motivation is always, however, bodhichitta — so the ever-present goal is to journey to enlightenment to be able to liberate everyone from samsara’s prison.
We can’t always do big external actions, but we can grow our love and compassion so that we perform even the smallest actions with a big heart. I personally have a lot of respect for Queen Elizabeth II (and relay a story here told about her by Geshe Kelsang). This Christmas, me and my family listened to her 3pm speech, and liked what she said:
But to be inspirational you don’t have to save lives or win medals. I often draw strength from meeting ordinary people doing extraordinary things: volunteers, carers, community organizers and good neighbors; unsung heroes whose quiet dedication makes them special.
They are an inspiration to those who know them, and their lives frequently embody a truth expressed by Mother Teresa, from this year Saint Teresa of Calcutta. She once said: ‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love’.
Some Bodhisattvas are able to do radical, visionary, great things to help society change, to become more equitable – Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, and numerous others less well known spring to mind — and this is very wonderful. But even if we do small things with great love, we are still actually doing big things — creating karmic causes for big things, and making huge strides towards enlightenment for everyone’s sake, as everything depends upon our motivation.
Who do you think you are?!
So in this third type of self-confidence we change our identity, thinking, “I will liberate everyone, I am a Bodhisattva, that’s my job.” If we change our identity, everything and everyone related to us feels different as well.
I was talking to a British friend about this the other day – she is breaking new ground in becoming a Buddhist pastor in a hitherto all-Christian context, and has had to overcome the self-doubt that thinks, “Who do you think you are to be doing such things?!,” which has only led her to fear and paralysis. To keep going each day, to surmount each hurdle, she told me she remembers this self-confidence and wakes up smiling with purpose, not trying to make a non-existent, small, limited self happy or successful. This is such a relief, she said, and a freedom, and has led to lots of interesting opportunities arising unforced.
These three types of self-confidence covered here have a great deal to do with being steadfast, which we need if we are to help others, especially over the long haul. Steadfastness is part of the Bodhisattva’s perfection of joyful effort, and I like to remember Buddha’s example for this – to be like a wide, calm, steady, flowing river that never stops on its journey to enlightenment, rather than an excitable, short-lived, somewhat panicky waterfall.
In the context of this big vision of ourselves and others, we can work out what we are capable of and then set out to do it. If I want to overcome my delusions, get from here to enlightenment, and free all living beings, then today — practically and spiritually — what am I going to do about this?
There is a fourth type of non-deluded pride or self-confidence, which is taught in Tantra — divine pride. I have talked about this a lot in these articles on Tantra, if you’re interested in checking them out.
Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome – especially anything you have personally found helpful for increasing your self-confidence and overcoming your self-doubts.
(Beautiful photos in this article courtesy of Happy Fox Photography.)
In Breathing for Peace Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:
Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.
We could do something truly radical by using our life to become a friend of the world, a modern-day Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by universal compassion, wants to help everyone without exception find lasting freedom and happiness. Compassion fuels their entire spiritual progress. They understand that the most far-reaching and satisfying way to help others is to keep increasing their own good qualities of generosity, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom – the so-called six perfections – until they become an enlightened Buddha able to help everyone all the time. This motivation is called bodhichitta, the mind of enlightenment.
A Bodhisattva is a rare being, a special person, an actual hero or heroine who gains victory over our real enemies of anger, greed, despair, discouragement and so on. Someone who wants to become enlightened for all living beings is uncommon, but just because it is rare doesn’t mean we can’t become one. There are people throughout the world working selflessly for others, in ways obvious or hidden. Sometimes we stumble across their stories and are inspired.
If we decided we wanted to help others with surgical procedures, we would understand the need to train as a surgeon. We wouldn’t march around with a carving knife announcing, “Anyone care for some heart surgery? Or perhaps a little amputation?” Wanting to help everyone, a Bodhisattva knows they first need to improve their own motivation, skills and capacity. They have a way to make every single day meaningful and are a great role model for how to live in the world.
How can we live a meaningful life?
How does someone become a Bodhisattva? Simply through daily practice, one step at a time. You may be thinking, “Well this is a bit fanciful isn’t it?! I started reading this article just out of curiosity, and possibly to help me get through this stressful day without killing someone, and now you’re suggesting that I aspire to become a fully enlightened Buddha!” But it is far closer than we may think. We can tell that we already have the seed of bodhichitta because we already want to help others at least a bit more than we can right now, and we already want to improve ourselves at least a bit. Take both of these to their logical conclusion and we have bodhichitta – the wish to help everyone without exception by improving ourselves until there is no further room for improvement.
We want our life to have some meaning, don’t we? Pleasure alone is not enough, it feels hollow, because it has no lasting value. True happiness and meaning go hand in hand. If we use our life to travel the spiritual path, we can be in the position of helping not just ourselves but infinite living beings. We can become real heroes.
Spreading a little happiness everyday
A friend of mine sent me this anecdote:
“Straight after university I spent a year working in television in London as a production runner for the Channel 4 comedy series The National Theatre of Brent. As a lot of my time was spent in gridlock, “driving” the company car on errands in London traffic, I had plenty of time to examine road rage. So frustrated by their lack of movement, drivers in front of me would honk their horns continuously, forcing their way into whatever gaps presented themselves. Yet an hour down the road, despite all their aggressive heart-attack—inducing attempts, I would see them again – a whole five cars further ahead!
I decided to conduct an experiment. Whenever possible, I would allow a trapped car into the space ahead of me. When I did this, I was greeted by a smile and wave from the surprised driver, and that car would often play it forward, repeating the gesture of kindness to another car ahead of it. Traffic seemed to flow more easily as a result. My journeys did not take any longer, and they were a great deal more restful and entertaining. This is just a simple illustration. We have these kinds of opportunities to practice loving-kindness every day.”
By improving our love and compassion and the wish to improve ourselves for the sake of others, and by gradually engaging in the Bodhisattva’s way of life, our life approximates that of a Bodhisattva and we become more and more like one. With this good and big heart, even if we improve ourselves only a little bit each day by, for example, patiently resisting the temptation to get angry with someone, and even if we only slightly help one or two people each day, by, for example, helping a little old lady cross the street, every little bit counts a lot because right here and right now we are already making strides on a cosmic spiritual journey.
I hope you’re having a happy holiday season. Just before Christmas I wrote a couple of articles about becoming more generous, and I have a few more things to say on the subject. We’ve no doubt bought and given all our presents by now, but we don’t have to wait a whole ‘nother year before we go crazy giving again! Generosity is the first “perfection” of a Bodhisattva, an essential part of their way of life leading to enlightenment. The more generous we become, the happier we’ll be.
What is a possession?
We have a strong sense of ownership, which if you check is a strong sense of mine. And where does a strong sense of mine come from? It actually comes from a strong sense of me — I in the possessive mode. Of me. The stronger our sense of mine, the stronger our sense of me. Our possessions are mine, which is like me in the possessive mode, me apostrophe s, me’s. It’s all about me. This shirt is my shirt, it is of me, get off it, you can’t borrow it! My shirt!
I had this experience, actually, I will confess. After the marathon we ran in Sacramento some years ago, we were given these fantastic red shirts with the logo: “Run for World Peace” and this great quote, “Without Inner Peace, Outer Peace is Impossible.” My shirt fitted me perfectly. And I loved it, and was so looking forward to just wearing it.
But then somebody said sadly, “Oh, I only got a large, I can’t wear a large, I’m a small,” and this thought came into my head, “Oh, crikey, I’m going to have to give them mine, aren’t I, show a good example?” So I did, I asked if they wanted to swap, and there was a pang – “Ugh. I’ve got a large shirt now, a large red shirt saying, “Without Inner Peace, Outer Peace is Impossible.”
It is so useful when things like this happen, you just see this childish, pathetic mind. I was happy to make her smile, truth be told, but at the same time I had attachment to this shirt, I had already labeled it “mine”, and as a result there was a bit of a pang. And then of course I had to give away the large shirt too as it didn’t fit.
So in reality this mind of holding onto things, it’s painful. Miserliness is a painful mind. It’s a tight mind, there’s no joy in it. That’s something we can check – “Do I derive any joy from holding tightly onto my things?” The part of me that did manage to give the shirt away and see the happiness she got from it felt great! It was such a better feeling!
Happiness is a state of mind, and we can’t find it in our shirts (especially when we already have a bunch of shirts!) There is no long-term security in any of our things, there’s not even any short-term security in them, for they cannot actually protect us from suffering, which is also a state of mind whose causes lie within.
Why do we feel so insecure that we have to bolster ourselves up with possessions, people, money, and so on? That insecurity is coming from our exaggerated sense of self, trying to protect that self, when in reality that’s counter-productive. The way to protect ourselves and find happiness is in loving others and letting go of that strong sense of self.
The weight of the world
Also, we are going to be dead within a few hundred months (but you knew that already, right?!) At that point, everything’s ripped away from us – our things provide us with literally no security whatsoever at the time of death.
In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully, my Teacher says that if we’re very attached to our possessions throughout our life, then when the time of death comes we’ll be like a bird trying to fly with weights tied to its little feet. The bird cannot move, and, in the same way, if we die with miserliness still in place, we’re in big trouble when it comes to future lives. We’ll be weighed down in samsara, this cycle of impure life. From Buddha’s point of view, it is very dangerous to have strong self-cherishing and miserliness at the time of death. We definitely don’t want to be weighed down.
And miserliness already weighs us down now. It is such a heavy mind. Giving is such a light mind. It is such a free-ing and flexible mind.
Self-cherishing is like a big black hole. It doesn’t matter what you throw into a black hole — SCHLURP! It sucks it all up, doesn’t it? We have been throwing things at our self-cherishing our entire life, let’s face it. We’ve been trying to protect our precious selves, nurture ourselves, give ourselves things, help ourselves, humor ourselves, grasp at happiness non-stop throughout the entire course of our life, but have we in fact succeeded in giving ourselves that lasting happiness or freedom from problems, or has our self-cherishing simply sucked it all in so we just have to go feed it again the next day – SCHLURP?!!!
When we learn to cherish others, then we naturally want to protect them, nurture them, and so on. We want to give them things when it’s suitable. We want to give our time, our advice, our encouragement, our love, our protection — like a radiating sun. That’s the difference. Self-cherishing and miserliness are a big, black hole, whereas cherishing others and giving are like a sun shining, radiating blissful energy towards everybody. We ourselves are so happy, and the people we’re with are happy.
We will experience happiness both now and in the future. In his Friendly Letter, the great Indian Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna says:
There is no better friend for the future
Than giving – bestowing gifts properly
On ordained people, Brahmins, the poor, and friends –
Knowing enjoyments to be transitory and essenceless.
There are a lot of deserving people we can give to – those who need help, those who’ve been very kind to us, those who are dedicating their lives to helping others, and so on. We can give, knowing that in any case our enjoyments are transitory and essenceless, so why hold onto them? They’re all utterly temporary. If we have some understanding of the dream-like nature of things, we also know that we cannot even find anything outside of our mind, so why would we want to hold onto it? It is about as satisfying as trying to grab ahold of objects in a dream.
At its deepest, the practice of generosity is very close to the practice of wisdom, because it is a profound sense of letting go of that sense of mine, which is so close to our sense of me. Giving up a sense of owning things is an amazing practice with profound results.
I would love to hear your own stories and observations on giving v. miserliness. Please give this Article #99 to anyone who might like it! And like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you want to discuss these kinds of things there as well.