Can we make sense of the senseless?

I wrote this on the occasion of the Boston bombings, but the technique for transforming senseless tragedy into spiritual insight applies to everything that is going on today as well.

“It was a beautiful, cool day when two bombs unleashed chaos and killed three people. Friends of those killed say they are devastated by the senseless deaths.” CNN

Much of the response to the Boston bombings this week has been, as always, the question “Why?”

I don’t know what motivated the two young brothers to do it, so I’m not even going to go there in this article, but I did meditate today on “making sense” of it from a spiritual point of view. As well as praying for those suffering so much today as a result of all this, I also wanted to find ways to think about it that could be helpful — otherwise this and all the other tragedies around the world are just piling misery onto misery with no seeming way out for any of us. Also, if there is no constructive way to think about suffering, the danger is that we disengage from it and look away, as opposed to connecting with others.

On the occasion of the 9/11 bombings, my teacher Geshe Kelsang prayed:

“We pray that the people who die will find a good rebirth and we pray that the world leaders gain wisdom. For those who are suffering, we pray that they are swiftly released from their suffering and receive blessings from the Three Jewels. It is very clear that without compassion and wisdom there is no possibility of being released from this kind of tragedy. We should learn how Dharma is the truth.” ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, 9/11/01

Scanning meditation

“Apply meditation to whatever circumstances you meet”

is a Kadampa motto, so I used the Boston bombings as the example. There is a type of meditation you can do called “scanning meditation” where you spend just a few moments or minutes on each of the stages of the path meditations to get an overview – we do this, for example, when we recite Je Tsongkhapa’s Prayer of the Stages of the Path in Prayers for Meditation. The following are just my own first thoughts on the subject – there are clearly thousands of ways to think about each one.

(1)    Precious human life: I just watched a very moving video of Krystle Campbell’s grandmother saying how her Krystle once told her that she liked to take each day as it came and loved life. Krystle “had a heart of gold. She was always smiling,” said her mother. She moved in with her grandmother to take care of her and was by all accounts a happy, compassionate person. I was thinking that she seemed to use her life, short as it was, to bring joy to others, and that it was a precious life while it lasted and even now. Krystle Campbell is second victim killed in Boston bombing

(2)    Death: You never know when or how you’re going to die. Really, never. None of us do. Best to start preparing today.

(3)    Dangers of the lower realms: Described in the media as: “The festive race into a hellish scene of confusion, horror and heroics.” The resembling physical hell realm at the bomb blast and the pure torture of the anger in human minds is like the tip of the iceberg, indicating the hells we are quite capable of creating for ourselves.

(4)    Refuge: Especially in Dharma on all its levels, including these 21 meditations. Our main refuge commitment with respect to Dharma is never to intentionally harm others. Or as the 8-year-old killed in the blast said earlier: no more hurting people

(5)    Karma: Don’t bomb other countries if you don’t want your own country to be bombed. This bull in a china shop option has no real subtlety or nuanced understanding of cause and effect. We have to stop perpetuating vicious cycles in our own lives and in the world at large.

(6)    Renunciation: While delusions rage in human minds, it will be forever thus. We need a radical solution, actual liberation from our real enemies, the delusions.

(7)    Equanimity: Agony as it is for the Bostonian victims, perpetrators, and their families, this scene is playing out all over the world and I think could benefit from our equal recognition.

(8)    All living beings are our mothers: If we realized this we could not harm them but, also, we could perhaps hope to start a process of forgiveness, understanding that people are not their delusions, even if they are currently controlled by them.

(9)    Remembering the kindness of living beings: People have been remarking that a lot of stories of heroism have come out of this, such as that guy in the cowboy hat. There has been an outpouring of kindness. Mr Rogers and the Boston bombing

(10) Equalizing self and others: Every single person in this scenario equally wants to be happy and free from suffering. That gives a lot of food for thought, stops it being so much about “us and them”. We realize we’re in this mess together and have to help each other get out of it.

(11) The disadvantages of self-cherishing: Where to start?

(12) The advantages of cherishing others: Any moment of happiness that has come out or will come out of this derives from the kindness of people helping and saving limbs, eg, the medical profession, the outpouring of love and prayers all over the world, and so on.

(13) Exchanging self with others: We can do this with both the victims and the perpetrators. Again, it gives a great deal of food for thought.

(14) Great compassion: This means compassion not just for obvious physical and mental pain, but for the causes of suffering, delusions and negative actions, or karma. In which case, there is no one in this scenario who is not a suitable object of our compassion. May everyone swiftly be freed from delusions and pain.  See Geshe Kelsang’s prayer.

(15) Taking: You could spend all day taking on the suffering of the victims, their families, the perpetrators, their families, and everyone else in similar circumstances around the world. A powerful day it would be, too.

(16) Wishing love: Love is the great Protector. With love in our hearts, there is room for everyone in this world. Without it…

Tara protecting living beings
May everyone  in Boston and elsewhere swiftly come under Buddha Tara’s loving protection.

(17) Giving: Act like a Buddha and send healing light rays giving relief and happiness to everyone involved. There is always something we can do 

(18) Bodhichitta: Seeing from this bombing the futility of trying to solve all the world’s problems without removing our own faults and delusions, and without having all the necessary qualities such as wisdom, compassion, and skill, it is imperative to become a Buddha as quickly as possible. And if I don’t, who will?

(19) Tranquil abiding/concentration: In short supply at the bomb site. If we have a chance to focus on controlling our own minds through concentration, we will be able to help others do the same as soon as the conditions are right. But life is crazy, so our time to train in concentration is now.

(20) Superior seeing/wisdom: See Geshe Kelsang’s prayer. The interviewer asked Krystle’s grandmother, “Does this feel unreal?” Everyone is saying, as they always do when tragedy strikes: “This is a nightmare.” And it is. With wisdom realizing the true nature of things, we have the actual solution to this and every other problem – we can wake up.

(21) Relying upon a Spiritual Guide: We need experienced guides to steer us out of the madness of this hall of distorted, bomb-blasted mirrors, and into lasting peace and freedom.

Over to you: How do you make sense of the senseless?

“If you do not help us, we will be killed.” What can we do about large-scale sufferings?

Some time has elapsed since I wrote this article on Homs, Syria; but the question “What can we do?” seems just as relevant to what’s going on today — which at the time of writing (January 4 2016) includes the rise of ISIS, the flood of desperate refugees, the floods in the north of England, the crazy political discourse, and one mass shooting a day on average in the US. Amongst other things.

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This sign held by a child trying to reach the world was the first thing I saw about the slaughter taking place in Homs, Syria, a few days ago. Then a newspaper today had the headline: “Syrian siege of Homs is genocidal, say trapped residents.”

“We are seriously dying here. It is really war,” Waleed Farah told the Guardian, speaking via satellite phone. He said: “It isn’t war between two armies. It’s between the army and civilians. You hear the rockets and explosions. You feel you are at the front. The situation for civilians is pitiful.”

What, if anything, are we supposed to do, as individuals in a country far away?

This question comes up again and again and again. Daily. With your help, I looked at this subject at the time of the Japanese earthquake. We decided there is never nothing we can do.

This time I wanted to examine how hard it is not to look away when we hear news like this. How tempting it is to turn away, or even close our heart, thinking “It is too awful, it is too far away, it is not part of my life, and what can I do anyway?”

But this suffering is part of my life. It is part of my suffering world. It is appearing in my world. I turn away at my peril.

I often come across links to footage I’d really rather not see, such as starving humans and skinned cats. Where does my squeamishness come from though – does it come from compassion or is there something else at play? After all, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas never shy away from following Buddha’s advice to know suffering (the first noble truth). How can we know something without looking at it? Can we? How am I going to go about removing myself and others from hellish situations if I can’t or won’t look at them? What do you think? (I’m not advocating we all start watching horror movies, perhaps there is a balance to be had here; but I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.)

A lotus grows from mud

One thing I do know, I cannot conveniently box away all seemingly irrelevant or unworkable suffering without increasing my own dullness or carelessness.

Back to the case in point, what did I try and do to help today? Here is a quick summary of my meditation. This is not the only way to do it, of course, it is just the way I did it today (and I always like to begin and end with bliss and emptiness!) Meditation is very creative, and you can do whatever works best for you.

  • I invited all the holy beings into my heart and mixed my mind with theirs like water blending with water, experiencing bliss. I knew I wanted to start from a peaceful, blessed place, or I would have nothing to bring to others, and I definitely wouldn’t want to focus on their gruesome pain.
  • With my mind of bliss I dissolved me, them, and our whole world into its ultimate nature, emptiness. There is no inherently existent world, “out there”. There are not even any inherently existent suffering beings in Homs. (See this article for why this is not escapism but holds the solution.)
  • I meditated on how I’m deeply connected to all living beings in my world, including those in Homs – we are all waves rising from the same ocean, each wave containing elements of all the others, entirely dependent related.
  • In that context, from my heart, I invited the residents of Homs inside. I exchanged self with others.
  • Then I thought about what they are experiencing right now. Beheaded people lie in the street, there are no ambulances to take away the dead, and people are cowering in their houses waiting for bombs to drop on them. And “the problem is that no one can get out”, as one resident put it. I usually prefer to start with an individual, for example I imagined what it must have been like to be this mother before, during and after the militiamen broke in: “The shabbiha (Assad’s militiamen) broke into three houses overnight and slaughtered a family of five — the father, wife and their three children…” And where are they now?
  • I developed a wish for them to be safe and free.
  • I did some taking and giving and imagined that they were safe and free, now and always.
  • I prayed to all the holy beings to bring this about swiftly. It is impossible to overestimate the power of completely pure minds. We can act as a conduit for blessings to flow from holy to ordinary beings, transforming them. There are no inherently existent suffering beings – we would all be doomed if there were, and there really would be no point in thinking about their suffering.
  • I brought everyone in all six realms into my heart to stay with all the enlightened beings, in bliss and emptiness. I stayed here as long as possible.

That much I owe them at least. If I was in their position, I would want to know that the world was at least looking at me, that the world cared. If we are in a position to do anything practical, then we do it, just as it suggests in the Bodhisattva downfall:

Not going to the assistance of those in need.

We can call upon our own government, wherever we are, to step in on behalf of the civilians, or sign a petition. I just donated to Avaaz here. And mainly, unless we have a direct line to the Syrian government, we can develop compassion and we can pray, knowing that these actions do make a difference.

One more point: although it is tempting to become angry at those who are attacking them, we can remember that the deluded and karmic causes of suffering go much deeper — the wheel of sharp weapons swirls round and round, perpetrators and victims continuously changing places. Michael said it this way in this article about his murdered brother-in-law:

“This next song is for Maynor, my brother in law. May we have compassion for those who killed him because it is quite clear that they could not have done such a thing if they were not themselves suffering and confused.”

Over to you: What are you doing about all these massive-scale tragedies? I look forward to your comments.

“When two elephants are fighting, the grass dem’ a-suffer.” ~ A story of hope and transformation

As mentioned in this article, Maynor was tortured and murdered in the Honduras aged 19, trampled by drug wars he had nothing to do with. Jeffery “Black Nature” was also at Maynor’s powa (transference of consciousness) puja at Saraha Center in San Francisco.

At the 20th anniversary of Saraha Center, a few days earlier, Michael Rollins, a dear friend, told me about the band Black Nature of the Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars, which was just about to play — Michael had at the last minute invited them. Jeffery “Black Nature”, the lead vocalist and drummer, was the youngest member of the Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars band, which was the subject of a PBS documentary in 2007 .

Extract from movie description: “The plight of the refugee in today’s war-torn world is captured in the African proverb: “When two elephants are fighting, the grass dem’ a-suffer.” So it was in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, when the government and various rebel factions carried out a brutal civil war in which the terrorizing of civilians — by killing, mutilation, rape and forced conscription — was common practice on all sides. The war sent hundreds of thousands of ordinary Sierra Leoneans fleeing to refugee camps in the neighboring West African nation of the Republic of Guinea. That’s where the remarkable story told by the new documentary Sierra Leone‘s Refugee All Stars began…

… At 15, Alhadji Jeffery Kamara, called “Black Nature,” is the youngest of the group. Orphaned by the war and tortured by police in Guinea, to which he had fled, Black Nature is perhaps the most traumatized and is considered an adopted son by the others.”

Michael Rollins

Jeffery has now started his own band, with the All Stars’ blessing. He met Michael by chance in the guitar shop where Michael works, and invited him to play bass for him and help him find the other musicians. Before one of their songs, Michael stood up to speak:

“This next song is for Maynor, my brother in law. May we have compassion for those who killed him because it is quite clear that they could not have done such a thing if they were not themselves suffering and confused.”

That, Michael had told me, was the thought keeping him sane during this nightmare. Nature was nodding his head in agreement through Michael’s short speech.

Nature’s story dwarfs most stories. I’ll share some of the main elements as told to me by Michael, hopefully not blowing the plot of the movie that I think could be made about him (and hopefully his new band). 🙂

Nature was 11 when the rebels came to his house. His mother had gone missing. He was forced to watch as they set his father alight, telling him that they’d do the same to him if he cried. Then they took him. They taught him how to kill, keeping him and the other child soldiers ramped up on drugs so that life and shooting felt unreal, like a video game. They filled the children’s heads with tales of how evil their parents and neighbors had been, but Nature said he never bought into what they said. Instead, he always tried to escape.

And during some fighting, he did manage to get away. Later one of the older soldiers found him but, in a lucky break, decided not to take him back but instead to flee with him and a couple of other escapees. He helped them make their way toward Guinea, but en route this new father figure was also blown up by a mine in front of Jeffery’s eyes.

The boys managed to get over the border into Guinea but the terror was not over. They were captured by police and, accused of being rebel soldiers, kept in cages not tall enough to stand up in. Nature has a stoop to this day. They’d be taken out and tortured, and periodically made to look at a pit of dead bodies, told that they were headed there themselves.

I’m a little hazy as to how they managed to escape this new nightmare, but at some point it involved Jeffery being plucked up miraculously by someone in a UN convoy truck as it was driving away from some war zone with things being blown up all around them. That is how he ended up in a squalid, dangerous, soulless refugee camp for the remainder of his teenage years, but how he also managed by another lucky break to meet the other members of the Refugees All Stars Band, including a musician whom he had greatly admired as a young boy in pre-war days. The band was eventually invited to travel, and they tour to this day.

At the tea Esmerelda made after the powa, Jeffery spoke softly to Maynor’s family and us, saying that the only thing we have to fear is mental bondage, and people can enslave or destroy our body but no one else can enslave our mind. He seems well on his way to extracting retribution from anger and other delusions.

Michael told me that Jeffery spontaneously gives a helpful hand wherever he goes and to whomever he meets. He also supports and encourages musicians back in Sierra Leone and in his new adopted city of San Francisco in particular. I found him to be gentle, kind, and humble, very easy to be with. At tea, he laughed at how during his time in the Refugee All Stars he had hung out with Angelina Jolie, been on Oprah, and appeared with Leonardo diCapria, only realizing from people’s reactions later how famous these people are.

I have not begun to do justice to his story and I apologize for any mistake in details, but the movie version will set us straight! In any event, what is powerful about meeting Black Nature is witnessing how he has transformed all this to end up the person he is today. By comparison any hardships I might have had in this human life are not even a walk in the park, more like a gentle stroll.

Offering music to the Buddhas

After Michael’s short speech, the band did a song about sending love to Maynor and to everyone in the world.  It was “real” – they were walking the talk – and everyone loved it. They say that their intention is not to make lots of money with their new band but to spread joy and sanity in our troubled world. I see no reason why they won’t reach and move new audiences with their music, because if Jeffery Black Nature and Maynor’s brother in law can forgive and find peace, surely there is hope for all of us?

(Michael told me yesterday that they are now recording a song dedicated to Maynor and the family.)

Please share this article if you like it, and leave your comments in the box below.

Here is a short video. You can look at Black Nature Band Facebook page to find out more.

Surfing life’s waves

The other day I saw a little dude with his surfboard looking disappointedly at the ocean – it was clearly his first day of vacation and his parents perhaps hadn’t warned him that the Gulf of Mexico is not known for its waves.

Lojong or mind-training practitioners are also a little disappointed when everything goes too smoothly because they have no exciting challenges to harness and transform into positive outcomes.

Transforming a sickness

My mother asked me how I found enough material to write about on my blog and, to give her an example of no shortage of subject matter when it came to applying meditation to daily life, I said I would write about my brother T as we had just been talking about him. Thanks for your permission, T, it is for a good cause 😉 (This is not the brother of this article, but after this I’ve run out of brothers to write about).

new life

T started life as a 7 pound baby and then a skinny boy. But by the time he reached his teens, he was starting to pack on the pounds, and he loved his food. He was also a brilliant and disciplined athlete who captained a whole bunch of school teams, scored 100 runs at Lords Cricket ground, can run fast, and is as strong as an ox (he can lift up my mother and me at the same time). But plump, and getting more so by the year. His Facebook picture is the Michelin man. I gave him the XXXL waistcoat (US vest) for Xmas and it barely zipped up around his big tum.

Early this year he was diagnosed with diabetes. My mother didn’t bother telling me for a month or so and, when she did get around to it, she sounded oddly cheerful. She even chuckled. I know she loves her first-born child, so what was that about?! Turns out it was because the apple of her eye is happy about his diagnosis! It has cheered him right up! I kid you not. He now says that he has to lose weight or die, and he is really relishing the incentive. He says having diabetes is making him lose the weight he could never have lost otherwise, it has given him the will power, and now he’ll live long and healthy and thin.

To give you some context here… people’ve been trying for YEARS, make that decades, to encourage him to lose weight. His two young daughters, his family, friends, his grandmother, everyone has veered between the extremes of nagging him and giving up and pretending the problem is not there. Naturally he has not been fond of all the interference and judgment, and in any case it didn’t make the blindest difference. His wife alone — who is so slim she disappears if you look at her sideways — accepted him the size he is. But the rest of us….

I saw him in the summer. He is a new person. At Xmas he was tired and listless and not as happy as he used to be. But the sparkle in his eyes is back, his energy levels are high, he is happy and engaging, and he has already lost 4 stone (56 pounds). His attitude to food has changed — he ate far less at lunch, for example, and didn’t seem to mind. He says he feels healthier than he has done in years. He intends to lick the disease through diet. If you saw what he ate before and how much, such bad habits over such a long period of time, you’d know what a huge step forward this is. And he can now fit into my Xmas gift with room to spare.

I complimented him on his discipline but he waved it off: “I’m not disciplined, I just had to do it. This was the greatest incentive.”

Suffering has good qualities

This is proof that diabetes is not inherently bad. You can’t call something inherently bad if it it is possible to transform it into something helpful. From a Buddhist point of view, we try to transform all our adversities into the spiritual path through renunciation (aiming for lasting freedom and happiness), compassion, bodhichitta (aiming for others  to have lasting freedom and happiness), wisdom… There is no such thing as a problem that cannot be solved with these methods. As Shantideva says:

Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.

If we really in our heart of hearts know that suffering has good qualities and offers us unprecedented opportunities, as T spontaneously understands about his serious illness, would we not decide to make use of it, and slowly but surely take delight in doing so? As mentioned, ancient Kadampas would look forward to difficulties – they were almost disappointed when things were going their way (although we don’t need to worry, there are ways to transform good things too…;-) We can know for sure that it is possible to transform whatever difficulty arises into a solution, and then find out the best way to do that in each case – eventually it’ll become a habit. (If you want, you can start by picking up one of the Lojong or mind-training books – Eight Steps to Happiness or Universal Compassion for example. It’s all explained in there.) Like my brother T, we’ll end up healthier and happier and with thinner delusions.

Something needs to click

When we realize things with the force of certainty, it can be far easier for our behavior to change as we are no longer negotiating with ourselves over every detail or meal. It is as if T was sabotaging himself before — he knew he was eating badly and he didn’t feel good about it all, but even if he lost weight each January (due to his once-yearly diet) there was the swing back due to attachment, lack of conviction, or whatever. And he was able to live in denial.

We all have to overcome our self-sabotage, attachment and denial of what’s going on, and it is not always easy. We know on one level that we’re going to get old and sick and dead, and that this should be incentive enough to practice being positive all the time and prepare for the inevitable; but on another level we deny these things, ‘Oh, it won’t be that bad!’ Or we even romanticize them: ‘It’ll be cozy, I can wear my PJs and slippers all day, and then I’ll have a peaceful death. Maybe I’ll do Botox and look even better!’ But when the doctor was telling T directly that he’d have to shape up or face the consequences, something must have clicked. We all could do with those click moments. That is what meditation is for. These are realizations. Better to have them before we get too old, sick or dead to do anything about our bad habits.

I find this a great example of surfing life’s waves:

It’s your turn: If you have any examples of transforming adversity to share, please leave them in the comment box below, I’d love to hear them. Please share this article if you like it.

Five ways to deal with criticism, part 3

This is the final installment. For the first two installments, see Five ways to deal with criticism and Five ways to deal with criticism, part 2.

How about us criticizing others?

Most of you agreed that it is best avoided. This is because our criticism can hurt others and is often not that helpful. If we can’t take it (and even if we can), perhaps we need to avoid giving it, unless we are quite sure of our motivation 🙂 As Nicola Bear Davis said on Facebook: “I know how I feel when I’m criticized, so if tables are turned I will advise someone with enthusiasm and compassion.” We have to know who we are talking to and be free from delusions such as aversion or pride.

If you have some belief in karma, it’s worth remembering that harsh words (motivated by delusion) are one of the ten non-virtuous actions identified by Buddha Shakyamuni as being karmic pathways to immense future suffering. As Jas Varmana put it: “Minds being paths, do we choose the malicious speech path to suffering realms, or the loving-kindness path to higher rebirth? (Both when giving and receiving criticism?)”

A good time to remember karma is when we are on the the receiving end of hurtful criticism — we wouldn’t be hearing this if we hadn’t created the causes through previous criticism of our own. Time to catch the ping pong ball; it stops here.

Cindy Corey said: “I think most of us don’t quite have the skill or non-attachment that would allow non-harmful criticism. I would almost define criticism as trying to use negative feedback to get someone to do something our way and that’s a failure — as people are different and why should people do things our way? I was just doing some reading today with regards to happiness and better relationships and criticism was certainly in the list of 7 deadly habits that create more problems and unhappiness. I think we can help people see or discover what is not working for them through caring and encouraging dialogue, but our interior dialogue is so negative already that I don’t think judgments from others are helpful. In the end, what is important is the intention — to help someone or control them?” Eileen Quinn agrees: “Motivation is key, isn’t it? If someone is criticizing you through irritation/dislike/anger, you will be more likely to put up walls/dig your heels in/get angry etc. I remember a key incident now when this happened to me a few years ago, I didn’t react positively, well more with bemusement than anything, but then the criticizer’s words did seem to me to be from a position of personal dislike and irritation.” Maria Tonella chipped in: “How can you say ‘I don´t like the way you are doing something’ without hurting any feelings…?”

Most of us prefer criticism of us to be indirect (ideally prefaced by some praise?!), but some brave souls do prefer brutal honesty. JB Christy said: “I wish I would get more honest feedback. Mostly people seem to just stop talking to me rather than speaking honestly about what’s going on for them. If they’d talk to me I’d have a chance of doing better. As it is I have to guess what happened. I’m apparently a terrible guesser.” Eileen agreed: “I deal best with directness. If someone is indirect with me I can tell they’re ‘beating around the bush’ and find that kind of frustrating. I would rather someone honestly and straightforwardly said something to me.”

So, if we do decide we really must go ahead and give those invaluable words of advice out of a pure motivation, it seems we need the skill to know whom we are speaking to as well – some people might be okay with the direct approach, but others would prefer us to beat about the bush, giving constructive comments in an accepting context.

Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas

The ancient Kadampas were experts when it came to criticism, flourishing on it as the peacock flourishes on hemlock. And luckily all their advice has survived to this day.

As Neil Toyota pointed out: “Remember Langri Tangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind in Geshe-la’s Eight Steps to Happiness, which includes liberating methods to deal with criticism and view/cherish all living beings as spiritual guides.” Wong Tho Kong agreed: “All Vajrana Buddhism practices the Eight Verses of Training the Mind. Criticism is a welcome teacher. It depends on how much you are ready to let go.” And as Isabel Golla reminded us: “Remember Atisha’s advice: praise binds us to samsara so in order to overcome pride we don’t hold on to praise and instead practice non-attachment to reputation.”

Atisha and Geshe Langri Tangpa were old Kadampas and fully realized Lojong (training the mind) practitioners. I love reciting Eight Verses of Training the Mind regularly, including the verse:

When others out of jealousy
Harm me or insult me,
May I take defeat upon myself
And offer them the victory.

The Lojong teachings on exchanging self with others are probably the most powerful methods in existence for helping us to accept and even enjoy criticism, and thereby make rapid spiritual progress.

The emptiness of the self we normally see

When we are criticized it is a great time to check and see how our understanding of emptiness is doing — how sharp still is the pain of self-grasping? If we are still becoming angry or anxious in these situations, and blaming the other person and trying to get free from them, we can make a mental note that we need to improve our understanding of the object emptiness. These are signs that although we may have an intellectual understanding of emptiness we are not meditating on it.

The emptiness of the self we normally see every day is what we are trying to meditate on and realize. Being criticized gives us an enjoyable challenge — the bigger or closer the target, “How dare they criticize ME!!”, the easier and more fun it is to knock it down, and the deeper the understanding of emptiness and resultant joy. We can therefore use specific difficult situations that cause this inherently existent self to appear strongly to deepen our understanding of its utter non-existence. I find this the most blissful and liberating method of all, and it means no criticism (or problem) need ever go to waste!

Summary: Five ways to deal with criticism

To summarize what everyone has been saying:

(1) Ask yourself, “Is it true or not?” Follow Geshe Kelsang’s advice above.

(2) Identify with your pure potential, not your faults, and then you can accept and use criticism without feeling bad about yourself.

(3) Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas, who were the experts.

(4) Use criticism to realize the non-existence of the self we normally grasp at, and destroy all your delusions once and for all.

And last but not least …

(5) Avoid criticizing others unless you really have to!

Your comments are welcome on any of these three criticism articles, and please share and rate (press the stars on) the articles if you find them helpful. Thank you.

Five ways to deal with criticism, part 2

This continues on from Five ways to deal with criticism.

How to deal with criticism and overcome our faults without feeling guilty or inadequate

If we have any self-cherishing, criticism will probably sting us to a greater or lesser extent. As Christopher Penny put it: “It depends on how high my self-cherishing dial is turned up!” But if we are cherishing others and also if we have a strong wish to improve, the criticism will not upset our mind, as Geshe Kelsang’s comments above indicate.

Self-confidence can handle criticism, whereas deluded pride (and/or feelings of unworthiness) cannot. (Check out the chapter on effort in the book Meaningful to Behold for the difference between these states of mind.)

Michael Hume said: “I hope I can develop to the point of taking direct comments as this is a much more powerful way to improve. We all need to know our faults, so anyone who criticises with any intention is in fact being very kind.” Rosanne Brancatelli added: “When we have love and compassion (even a little) it doesn’t sound like a criticism, it sounds more like an advice. If we have the determination to become a better human being (as the listener), we are more open to advice.” Someone else (sorry, lost your name!) put it this way: “I suppose the very strong Dharma practitioner would react positively and constructively no matter what the criticism seemed to be coming from, and that is a goal to keep in mind. Being objective in reaction as well, keeping the ego out of it — is it true? Yes — then change it. Is it not? Well don’t worry then! Just maybe try to calm the upset or pain of the criticiser.”

Venerable Atisha

The ancient Kadampas used to enjoy being criticized as it helped them see their faults more clearly. They aimed at getting to the point where they actively loved criticism, especially from their Spiritual Guide, as it was a direct assault on their worst enemy, self-cherishing. Seen in that light, we are in it together with our Spiritual Guides, teachers and friends when they criticize our limited, faulty, samsaric self because we agree with them that it has to go!

Over the years, I’ve gotten better and better at taking criticism from others, especially from my Spiritual Guide 🙂 I know when my teacher seems to disapprove that he is relating to my pure potential and not to my faults – it is as if he and the pure blissful actual me of my Buddha nature are ganging up on the limited faulty samsaric fake me apprehended by my self-grasping and self-cherishing. “She’s got to go”, we both agree.

It is incredibly helpful to have help from holy beings when identifying and overcoming our faults. If we can mix our mind with theirs, we can look at ourself from within that wide-open accepting and loving perspective. This is the best place to work on ourselves as it guarantees we will not identify with our faults and feel inadequate, unworthy or guilty.

This only works if we are clear on the difference between our pure potential and the limited, faulty self we identify with when we have any delusions. Clearly we don’t want to end up hating ourselves; that would be entirely missing the point.

Kelsang Chogma describes it well: “I think if we can stop identifying with our faults, then we can take criticism from others and it also stops us from feeling discouraged and overwhelmed when we notice our faults ourself. I think there’s a strong relationship between these two. If we feel that we are an inherently faulty, deluded, impure, degenerate person then we don’t like it when others can see this too. If we contemplate how we are not our delusions, this helps. Then we can honestly say, “yes I have faults and I’m trying to do something about them”. That’s what I’ve found helpful anyway.”

Wrathful blessings

The wrathful blessings of the Spiritual Guide were always considered to be the most powerful for removing obstructions from the mind. There are four so-called “siddhis” or attainments possessed by holy beings. Nowadays, our Spiritual Guide generally has to rely on the first three — peaceful, increasing and occasionally controlling attainments — for if he displays wrath, the chances are we’ll run a mile! Our Spiritual Guides would never get away with actually beating us as they did in the old days, when the old Mahasiddhas would view it as Yamantaka’s hand (see Great Treasury of Merit page 94)! But, occasionally, if we’re lucky, our Spiritual Guide may be pretty direct with us; and during these times we have an unprecedented opportunity to cleanse our negativities and change quickly for the better.

Maria Tonella agreed: “What about when you don’t even know you are doing something bad? Or you have incorrect instructions? Or when your Teacher points you out something you should change for the better..?” Jas Varmana said: “Yes, I was thinking how my teacher can be sharply critical but so clearly wants you to live up to your potential that it’s empowering rather than hurtful.”

The point is, if our Spiritual Guide criticizes us, it usually is for a good reason as he or she has no wish to make us feel bad just for the heck of it. He or she can help us face up to faults that we never knew we had and get rid of them. Certainly this has been true in my case.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread…

Sometimes we may be tempted to jump on the moral bandwagon when we see a peer being criticized or demoted by the powers that be, including our teachers, and decide it is okay for us to lay into them too! (This happens in all human societies, even in Buddhist ones, and I reckon it is often due to our own feelings of inadequacy and schadenfreude.) But the truth is that if we don’t actually possess any wrathful siddhis, we might not want to emulate our teachers in this respect 😉 Wrath is motivated by compassion alone; it possesses no trace of anger or pride. It’s important to have worked our way up through peaceful, increasing and controlling siddhis first! In fact, really it is safest to stick to entirely peaceful methods unless we can be absolutely sure we know what we are doing… Always be kind, not judgmental, is the Kadampa way. Related to that… (this article will be finished in part 3, coming shortly, and including us (not) criticizing others, the advice of the Kadampas, and emptiness….)

Five ways to deal with criticism

What is criticism?

According to Buddha’s teachings on karma, pointing out a truth motivated by kindness and skill is a positive action that leads to good results, whereas hurtful speech motivated by delusion is one of the ten non-virtuous actions that leads to a lot of trouble. If this is true, it makes sense not to criticize others unless we are sure of our motivation.

On the other hand, in terms of being on the receiving end of criticism ourselves, this is fairly routine; so we might as well learn to enjoy it.

Someone asked me to write an article about dealing with criticism so I decided to throw this question open to the experts on Facebook, feeling pretty confident that everyone’s had to do it at some point or another. Generally people don’t like it because it is one of the so-called eight worldly concerns and we’d prefer to be praised 🙂 So how can we come to enjoy the inescapable, or at least not mind it so much?

How do you feel about being criticized? The early Kadampas would say it was the best thing that could happen to us; but who finds it easy …. ?!

Who is criticizing us and how?

If it is people we trust and we know they have our best interests at heart, people find it easier to respond positively and learn. Eileen Quinn answered: “If it is someone you have a good, real, relationship with to start with and they are doing the criticizing from real insight then it’s easier to accept and react in a positive way.” And Allison Moxie Verville pointed out: “I think true valuable criticism, especially from those we trust, should be welcome, appreciated, and examined as a way by which to grow ourselves and learn. Supportive criticism isn’t intended as personal or negative and can be seen as an opportunity as well as indicator that someone has a positive vested interest in us.” Victoria Kaya said: “At university we are constantly criticized, but always constructively. Without being criticized I would not be where I am today. When I look back over the last few years I see that my teachers are my best friends and I owe what I have learnt to their kindness.”  Michael Hume put it this way: “Because of my self-cherishing I respond best to “skilful criticism” from people I trust & respect. Such as when someone says something slightly indirectly to help me understand something that will benefit me. That way I understand that the intention is good and they have taken the time not to directly hurt my feelings.” Rosanne Brancatelli from Brazil says “Whom I respect, I really think about, some people I don’t care. Pride? Maybe.”

So it seems that if we know the criticism is well motivated, we’re prepared to put up with it and use it. This is a fine place to start. However, the downside is that if we distrust others’ motivation we are quite likely to become annoyed or upset; and being conditional has its limits. For one thing, we cannot always choose how our criticism is served up or by whom, so that puts us in a vulnerable position. For another, if our criticizer happens to be speaking some truth, rejecting it could mean missing out on some helpful insight into our faults.

What would Geshe Kelsang do?

We can overcome these limitations by understanding that criticism can in fact always be helpful if we shift our perspective as to what we actually need out of life. The mind-training adepts of old, Kadampas like Atisha and Geshe Potowa, famously relished any kind of criticism that came their way as a vital demolisher of their egos — they far preferred a good insult to being massaged by praise!

Modern-day Kadampa teacher Geshe Kelsang explained to a friend of mine what he himself does when it comes to being criticized. (It is not as if he is short of practice — he has received his fair share of criticism from various quarters, including from people who really don’t appreciate him at all.) I’ve always found this advice very useful.

When he is criticized, he checks whether what the person is saying is true or not, regardless of their motivation. If it is true he thanks them (at least mentally) and tries to change. But even if it is not specifically true, the criticism reminds him that self-cherishing has many faults, and because he is happy to be reminded of this he also thanks them.

The second part of this article is coming soon, including how to defeat our faults confidently, without feeling guilty or inadequate.

Your comments are welcome, and please share this if you find it helpful.