From division to unity

An article co-written by a friend and me. 

One of Buddha Shakyamuni’s qualities is that he has love and compassion without discrimination. Sometimes we fantasize about Buddha’s time, as if it was always peaceful and magical. But the truth is that Buddha went against the grain of his society and invited everyone into the spiritual community — men, women, kings, queens, those of the lowest caste, those shunned by society, even thieves and murderers. This speaks to the foundation of the teachings — that they are for everyone. These teachings, which provide freedom, provide this freedom for everyone. It was powerful then and it is powerful now.

Tibet was pretty feudal, not the most progressive society in the world by any means. Although there were spiritual masters and Yoginis of staggering power, Dharma teachings and teachers were largely confined to the monasteries; and for whatever reason society as a whole was static for centuries. We have a better opportunity than practitioners in Tibet to use Buddhist ideas to make a difference in our world because we are already democratic in theory and because of modern communications. The last time that Venerable Geshe Kelsang, originally from Tibet, visited the States, he praised Western countries:

I find in Western countries very good examples. For example, in Europe and in America, according to their constitutions, everyone is equal. They’ve even made it into law. There is equal education, equal rights, equal freedom for free speech, no discrimination between different races, no discrimination between different religions.

 On paper at least we are doing very well, and this is actually a wonderful achievement. The truth is that you cannot find one single person who is more important than everyone else, or even more important than anyone else. We are equal. We believe it in principle. However, as we know, we don’t always believe or live this truth in practice. Why? Geshe Kelsang explained:

It is so difficult to put this law into practice because we cannot help but discriminate naturally. Due to our self-cherishing mind thinking “I am important” and ignoring others’ happiness, even though the law says everyone is to be treated equally we are not doing this practically. The government constitutions saying “Everyone is equal” looks like a Mahayana Buddhist idea; but we can’t do it practically. 

When Gen-la Dekyong was talking about this in this year’s Summer Festival, she said we need to check inside our heart: “Am I discriminating that everyone is equal? When we think I, I, mine, mine, we naturally cherish that I, thinking it is most important, and neglect others.” As Geshe-la says:

We can’t practice equality if we have never trained in thinking ‘Self-cherishing is bad. It causes problems and suffering.’ Thus the constitution is the law and Mahayana Buddhism is the practice of this law.

As Buddha’s ideas spread into the modern world at large, where everything is connected, we now have a new and inspiring opportunity to use them to reshape our society and become truly democratic. Everyone can make use of these ideas, not just Buddhists, for they are in many ways just super-charged common sense.

Over to my co-writer again for some very helpful suggestions on how we can get started.

Equalizing self and others

If we want to move from division to unity, if we want true equality, one way is to practice equalizing self and others. We can contemplate this for example: 

Just as we value our own peace and happiness, so too should we value the peace and happiness of all living beings; and just as we work to free ourself from suffering and problems, so too should we work to free others. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness 

If we’re going to get to true or actual equality, equalizing is what we each need to practice. This is a very deep attitude, a deep spiritual conversion of our heart. Believing that other people’s happiness is equally or at least as important as our own, we will really help them and pray for them. 

If we all go deep into this, how would it affect the people around us? How would our world change as a result? I think our personal world would change immensely, and the immediate world of our family and community would also change. Our contribution, our influence, would be powerful.

We need to examine our own perceptions and attitudes through introspection or meditation; this is our responsibility. What about those who are not doing this though, who are careless with their self-cherishing, who don’t even know or care that they have it? 

The only appropriate response to those who are driven by their delusions to harm others is compassion. Sometimes it is necessary to force those who are behaving in very deluded ways to stop both for their own sake and to protect other people, but it is never appropriate to blame or become angry with them. ~ Eight Steps

Which means to hate them. We know this. To hate someone who is acting out of ignorance or hatred is no better. It is no solution. It is a deeper transformation of our mind to see that people are being harmed by their hatred as opposed to being their hatred. It takes the wisdom born from meditation to really see the difference between a delusion and a person. It’s not intellectual.  

We are all family

Right now, there’s a lot of division. Broadly speaking, we have friends, we have people we don’t like, and we have a huge group inbetween for whom we feel nothing at all. This is all mis-identification because, according to Buddha, we are all family. We have all been each others’ mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters a million times over. Through the countless rebirths we have had, we’ve changed our relationships repeatedly. We have taken a different rebirth now, but that doesn’t mean the connection we’ve had is gone — it does still exist. We are connected deeply. 

Along with this basic category of friends, enemies, and strangers, we further divide ourselves up in so many different ways: by culture, race, sexual preferences, politics, income, and more. So then what happens? We develop attachment for the people who seem to be like us or who agree with us. And we develop unpleasant feelings — maybe even hatred — for people who do not seem to be like us or who do not subscribe to our views. Doesn’t this sound like what we do!? We create division. We’re fractured.

Dualistic thinking

Just to get profound for a bit … on the deepest level, the origins of these classifications and divisions are what we call “dualistic appearance” and “dualistic grasping.” There’s the truth or reality of me, and there’s also what appears to be me. We see these two things to be separate when they are not

For example when you go to work there’s a professional you in your uniform, then when you go home there’s an at-home you in your old comfy jeans. The professional you is not different from the at-home you — they are just different aspects of what appears to be you. The truth of you is that you are undefined and unlimited in aspects. Gardening you, jogging you, angry you, happy you. There are so many aspects or appearances of you! All of these “you’s” are unified in your truth, which is what Buddha called your emptiness. 

One way to look at it is this — you are truly empty of definition. You are the unlimited possibility of emptiness. It’s a very positive liberating emptiness!  

Your emptiness, or lack of true definition, is how the many aspects or appearances of you are possible in the first place. For the sake of argument, if you really were just one of these aspects entirely, defined only in that one way, the other aspects of you would be impossible. However, how you live your varied life every day in all these aspects tells you what’s really going on. 

All of these modes of you, these ways of being, exist because of your lack of true definition. Your unlimited true nature (your emptiness) and your various aspects are unified.  However we normally perceive these two, our emptiness and our aspects, as two different things, which is called dualistic appearance or mistaken appearance. Out of deep habit we believe this difference or inner division to be true, which is called dualistic grasping. From The Mirror of Dharma:

When we see our body, in truth we see only the emptiness of our body because the real nature of our body is its emptiness. However, we do not understand this because of our ignorance. We normally see our body as something that exists from its own side. This is mistaken appearance. ~ The Mirror of Dharma

Whether talking about our body or our self, we are perceiving something that is true as well as something that is not true. We perceive our emptiness, because emptiness is our true way of being, yet we don’t apprehend or relate to it. Instead we see and relate to an ordinary limited self that is independent in its way of being. 

For example, we can think “I’m stuck,” and have this strong sense of a limited real self, yet not understand how that sense of self depends upon our way of thinking and is therefore empty of being stuck, not really stuck! Our mind is obscured by confusion, although the truth is already before us. 

Becoming whole

If our confused mind is creating division in ourself at a very deep level, you better believe it’s going to divide everyone and everything else up too. However, due to Buddha’s great and practical wisdom, we can remedy this situation. We can become whole — individually and collectively. 

If we believe that there is an independent me or self, then this means there’s an independent you or other too. We have divided ourselves into independent me and independent you. Or into real, or actual, self and other. 

Then come the many layers of classification and division that pile on from that ignorance. We believe in so many things that don’t exist from their own side! We put everything into separate boxes, not seeing their interconnection and 100 percent mutual dependence. Understanding the origin point of the mistake, we can address it or abandon it, as Buddha explains fully in the four noble truths

Uprooting systemic ignorance 

Samsara, from a Buddhist definition, is the cycle of impure life — a life that is created by this dualistic self-grasping ignorance along with the self-centeredness (Me first!) that goes with it. This world that we normally see is definitely impure life — created, controlled, and perpetuated by ignorance. It is not so hard to see this truth when it is pointed out. The root of samsara is deep, deep systemic ignorance, and it is therefore pervaded by systemic division and systemic inequality.

The inequality that we see in society is a manifestation of the deep levels of samsaric divisiveness. Because in the origin point of our thinking there is a false duality, everything else is a projection of this duality, this separation, this division. However, instead of believing in an objective or actual “self” and “other” — or an independent me divided from an independent you — we can learn to see ourselves as gathered together into one. Parts of a whole. Unified in truth.

Abolishing inequality

Going back to equalizing, we can see for a start that each one of us is interconnected in a dimensionless, huge, universal wish to be happy and free. We are unified or one in this wish. We can easily begin to overcome our mistaken divisiveness by seeing and feeling that we are all interconnected rather than independent. It’s so necessary, because this view of independence is literally killing us.

Geshe Kelsang says:

Loving others is principally an attitude of mind. The way in which we express it depends upon the needs, wishes, and situations of each individual as well as our karmic connection with them. We cannot physically care for everyone, but we can develop a caring attitude towards all beings. This is the main point of training the mind.

We can spend weeks, months, our whole life on deeply seeing others’ happiness and freedom as important as our own, and developing a caring attitude towards them. If we can do this, we will move beyond division. When we do this, we become someone who creates harmony, who creates peace, who can repair trouble. We become more and more fearless, an abolitionist of inequality. We have the methods. We’ve got such clear instruction that holds incredible power. We’ve got the wish and people are waiting.

Over to you. Please leave your comments and questions for us in the comments so we can answer them.

Related reading 

The meditation on equalizing self and others 

What is self-cherishing and what is wrong with it?

What can we really know about anyone? 

Living beings are not their delusions 

Injoyment

9 mins read.

You are unique. There is no one quite like you in this world. And as Fred Rogers would say:

I like you just the way you are.

But, as per this last article, it is helpful to contemplate that we are all also basically the same — unique but none more special — one reason being that our varieties of mind are the same. This includes both negative and positive minds, both unhappiness and happiness.

Tala 1In this human realm we have a lot more worldly pleasure aka changing suffering than beings in the hell and hungry spirit realms because living beings there are rarely, if ever, free from the painful feelings of manifest suffering. This is almost too ghastly to contemplate, thought contemplate it we must if we are to develop universal compassion.

But whenever we are experiencing changing suffering it feels the same as other people’s.

My African adventure took a new turn when we decided on the spur of the moment to go say hello to the animals at the Tala game reserve. I was not expecting to spend the day hanging out on the wide open plain with rhinos, zebras, ostriches, wildebeest, monkeys, and giraffes, but there you go, another reminder to always expect the unexpected. It was a bit like the opening scenes of the Lion King, which I seem to be watching on this final airplane lap back to America.

Ok, so here’s a question. We saw this giraffe, like some mesmeric prehistoric creature, lumbering across the road in front of our truck to nibble on the green leaves on the top of a new tree. She seemed happy, she probably was happy, why not. And what was that? Was it not changing suffering? The same kind of comparative pleasure we all experience from worldly pleasures?  

Tala 4Back in the Observatory where I was staying in Cape Town, a frail old woman was sleeping outside in the same spot every night because it has a makeshift tarpaulin roof; but Sangkyong discovered that in the rainy months she was pushed out of that prime spot by two youths, only allowed to return in the dry season. If someone finds a tarpaulin, there is happiness, just as if someone buys a mansion, there is happiness. How much subjective difference is there in those pleasant feelings?

From life in luxury to life on the edge, is there any qualitative difference in our happiness when we get something we want? The giraffe is happy to find his green leaves, a millionaire is happy to purchase some new novelty like a yacht, and a handout of 100 Rands might make the day of someone hustling to survive. It is all relative – the suffering of change is by nature relative, the crossover point between some manifest pain and its temporary relief. Scratching an itch, as it were. Like receiving the all clear from a doctor, which is a pleasurable relief, but only for someone who thought they might have cancer. Better than, “It’s not good news I’m afraid,” but still not good enough.

Wayne the local guardian
Wayne who watches over KMC Tushita

By the way, none of these types of relief holds a candle to the relief we experience when we are able to drop into our peaceful heart-mind and let go of our problems through breathing meditation, much less when we start grasping less at our self through the wisdom realizing there is no self.

What is happiness?

Happiness is a loaded word, of course, which may be why Geshe Kelsang explains two types, fake and real.

According to The Week, in the mid-17th century Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, cast the word “happiness” (which hitherto had meant “lucky”) as an unending process of accumulating objects of desire, redefining it as a subjective, shifting feeling, predicated on our desires:

The felicity of this life,” wrote Hobbes in 1651, “consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.

He believed that happiness had a slippery and fleeting nature and must be continually sought after, which I think is a good description for the fake happiness of changing suffering. Or as Don Draper, the advertising exec, puts it in Mad Men:

What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.

In some ways, the itch of fake happiness becomes more itchy the more stuff we acquire because luxuries become necessities and we find ourselves more and more distracted from the source of real happiness within. External wealth is nowhere near as meaningful or satisfying as internal wealth, not even close.

wealthOnce the basic necessities of food, clothing, medicine, and housing are met, more contentment would seem to bring more peace of mind. Trust me, I have thought about this, and I am not saying I’d prefer to be poverty stricken — day to day life is grueling with few resources and I’m way too accustomed to comfort and, basically, a wimp. But I think the feeling of pleasure we get from externals, once the basic needs are met, may not be that different.

I saw a lot of laughter in Alexandra, arguably more than in the neighboring Sandton with its fancy mansions behind electric fences. Jampel in Durban told me a story about visiting Eshowe in the Bodhisattva Patti days and seeing little boys playing with string and tin cans “squealing with joy, for hours on end” – a pleasure he reckoned was just as great as the pleasure of the little Sandton boy stuck into his video game, quick to boredom, maybe greater.

happiness

Therefore, as Buddha explains, the pleasure of temporary liberation from particular sufferings –although a great deal preferable to endless manifest pain — is nevertheless never going to be good enough for any of us, rich or poor – we all need permanent liberation from all suffering. This, then, is Buddha Shakyamuni’s intention– to free all living beings permanently from all their suffering. It is the reason he attained enlightenment and taught everyone else how to go about it.

I read this the other day about the apparently greatly misunderstood Epicurus (also in The Week):

As Epicurus saw it, happiness is merely the lack of aponia—physical pain—and ataraxia—mental disturbance. It was not about the pursuit of material gain, or notching up gratifying experiences, but instead was a happiness that lent itself to a constant gratefulness.

Buddhism would agree that when our delusions have subsided, and/or when we experience gratitude or other positive minds, our mind is naturally peaceful and therewith happy; and would also add that we can exponentially deepen that peace and happiness through increasing our positive minds until they last forever.

I was thinking today about why get out of bed in the morning? Why do anything? Why slog away at work, feed the cat, put up the offerings, answer the texts, talk to the coworkers, sort out the paperwork, go for a walk, surf the internet, give away a dollar, go to the doctor, watch TV, water the flowers, etc etc. I know from the times I’ve tried it that if we can have the same intention as Buddha — that is, wanting ourself and all living beings to be free permanently from all sufferings — our whole day becomes extraordinary, even as practically speaking we work just temporarily to liberate ourself and others’ from particular sufferings. With practice, we can get better and better at doing both these at the same time.

Curating our life feeds

impermanenceWhat is true or real happiness? Nowadays a lot of people famously curate their Facebook or Instagram feeds to give the impression that their lives are perfect and to avoid appearing unhappy — just one peak experience after another, one exotically located selfie after another — leaving everyone else grimacing or with FOMO. This constant pretending takes a toll and probably, though I haven’t Googled this to check, undermines friendships rather than strengthens them. If our lives were actually perfect and we were always happy, we probably wouldn’t bother telling everyone. I haven’t seen Venerable Geshe-la post any selfies recently, for example. It’s hard to get him to talk about his own life or his achievements or his non-stop great bliss at all.

It is not just on social media that we are jostling for reputation and position like this, I think it just shows up there because we spend so much time on it. One of the social workers in Alex township, who has to deal with so much real crazy sh** every day, was nonetheless more preoccupied by a male friend who was so proud of his new car that he was making everyone around him “feel small”. Apparently there is a lot of jostling for status in the townships, that’s what they told me; and perhaps it’s not so surprising in a community that was kept down for so long.

Facebook fakeryWhen I brought up Shantideva’s analysis of how we categorize people into (1) those who are inferior to us in some way so we feel pride, (2) equal to us in some way so we feel competitive, or (3) superior to us in some way so we feel jealous, there was a vigorous nodding of heads. I was surprised one early morning to see the domestic, Ama, arrive at work where I was staying all dressed in her very finest togs as if she was going to a wedding or something. When I started looking, I could see that a lot of commuters were beautifully dressed on their way to and from work, apparently to keep up appearances in the communal taxi, and changing quickly into their scruffy clothes once no longer amongst their peers. Just Instagram in 3D.

Injoyment

That leads me to Buddha’s point about happiness coming from within — real happiness, that is, versus the fake happiness of changing suffering. The deepening pure unconditional happiness that arises from a growing inner peace, a pure intention, warm love, virtue, and wisdom. How does the pleasure from, say, eating some good food (however we construe that, from green leaves on top of a new tree to dining out on every continent) compare with the pleasure from say, developing the heartfelt wish for everyone to be unconditionally happy and permanently free from suffering?

pleasure from within

Happiness doesn’t come from working hard or pursuing and purchasing peak experiences. It is a natural by-product of peaceful and positive states of mind. Our first-world lifestyle and expectations can therefore backfire. To quote The Week again:

These days, we try to collect moments of happiness like shells at the beach, even as the waves wash them away. The pursuit is Sisyphean; it inevitably leads down a disappointing path.

Or, as Aldous Huxley wrote in 1956:

The right to the pursuit of happiness is nothing else than the right to disillusionment phrased in another way.

Also, in this kind of pursuit of happiness, we often think it also requires avoiding bad feelings at all cost — pretending they are not there and airbrushing them out of our feeds or daily commute, or distracting ourselves. But if we know how to be truly happy we are no longer scared of these thoughts and emotions because we know they are just weather in the mind with no power to do us harm, and not who we really are. (See these articles for more on that.)

And, like I said, we’re all the same

One last thing, just like our negative minds and our experiences of changing suffering described above, our virtuous minds also feel the same inside. We are not that original. Which turns out to be a good thing. For, if we are not so original or unique after all, it means the methods exist to fix us.

Thanks for sharing my adventures in South Africa. Over to you. Comments most welcome in the box below.

Related articles

Will this make me happy? 

Itchy feet, itchy mind

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive

Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to be happy