8 mins read.
Sometimes I find the world’s problems so scary-messy that I puzzle where & how on earth well meaning people are supposed to start unravelling them!!? And how can one person without worldly power make a difference anyway? This kind of doubt can lead people (me) to discouragement and inaction, switching channels to watch a comedy instead.
However, in the four noble truths Buddha explains how all inner and outer problems stem from a handful of delusions in the minds of living beings, along with the negative actions these spawn. That is why the book How to Solve our Human Problems only has about 100 pages! If we solved our delusion problem, and our actions were motivated by wisdom, compassion, skill, self-confidence, and other positive minds, all other problems would have no choice but to slink away. And as we start mastering our own minds, we’ll find we have more and more will and power to help others.
Along with study, contemplation, and meditation, there’s no reason not to do the actions we are already doing to attempt to solve the world’s problems – I just voted in the local elections, for example;* and people everywhere are coming up with visionary, creative, active ideas all the time. I love hearing about some of these solutions, including new technology for combatting climate change, and the use of art to combat the scourge of racism; but I still feel that if we are not at the same time solving these uncontrolled negative states of mind and behaviors we won’t be able to escape their suffering results — regardless what outer measures we take.
(*Ah, well, since I wrote that the election results came back, showing that only one item I voted for got through, lol. See my point?! Some civic involvement may be useful and indeed our responsibility, but it is still not enough to get everyone to agree with us, let alone to totally transform our troubled world.)
Maybe I should just give up?
Watching what’s going on around the world, it can appear that the easy choice is to cave in to delusions such as greed, moral corruption, arrogance, and intolerance. People seem to be getting away with this left, right, and center whilst those who are trying to lead a good life and help others are left high and dry. But — talking to myself here — it is not the easy choice because, regardless of any seeming short-term benefits, it leads not just other people but ourselves to more suffering and pain. Sometimes I think we just have to trust that if we are making our best effort to overcome our ignorance and selfishness and to be steadfastly kind, moral, and ethical in accordance with the law of karma, things will work out.
Transforming daily life
There’s a beautiful section in the mind-training (Tib. Lojong) teachings that shows how, instead of feeling sad and defeated, we can transform literally everything that happens to us into the journey to freedom and the growing ability to help everyone.
The three poisons, three objects, and three virtuous roots
Are the brief instruction for the subsequent attainment. ~ Universal Compassion
“Subsequent attainment” means the periods between meditation sessions, ie, our daily life, the vast majority of our time; so it’s kind of important.
This is the whole point about modern Buddhism or Kadampa Buddhism – bit by bit we take all Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and put them into practice in our lives, whatever we’re up to. It’s why it is proving so perfect for busy contemporary people with full lives, jobs, careers, kids, families, relationships, social engagements, who travel, etc etc. (I wrote this article before COVID — but Buddha’s teachings are just as helpful now that we’re stuck at home instead of doing all that travel and socializing!)
Whether our own and others’ conditions are good or bad, whether we’re all having a good time or are beset with difficulties, we learn that there is always something we can do to stay peaceful, positive, and helpful, to stay part of the solution.
It’s a work in progress, but eventually we find we are integrating our life into Dharma, rather than integrating Dharma into our life.
Transforming objects of attachment into objects of non-attachment
Whenever we encounter objects of desire, instead of responding with the poison of attachment, we intensify our wish (“virtuous root”) to experience the real happiness that comes from inner peace and eventually culminates in the bliss of permanent freedom. Then we can enjoy them (or lay them aside, either way) without exaggerating or getting sucked into them. This is called non-attachment.
Seems to me as if practically everyone is running all day long after objects of attachment to get happy, or the “wrong objects” as Geshe Kelsang calls them. We can check what we are doing all day long to see if that includes us. Or for that matter talking about all day long, including even our most innocent conversations. Just now I was listening to one woman sigh to another, “I prefer these pine trees to the ones we saw over there – I really wish they’d plant more of them.” (Yes, I’m in Colorado). And I was thinking, perhaps uncharitably, how no amount of pine trees would be capable of making this woman happy.
Ok, that’s a strangely mild example of attachment leading to mild frustration, and a first-world problem for sure; but we can extrapolate how, as attachment strengthens, so does frustration. No amount of relationships, money, drugs, TV, fame, sex, vacations, or pine trees can make us happy – finding real happiness in transient illusory objects outside of our mind is impossible. As Shantideva puts it, quite powerfully:
If we consider all the hardships we have endured since beginningless time
In pursuing meaningless worldly pleasures
We could have attained the state of a Buddha
For a fraction of the difficulty! ~ Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life
Funny thing about attachment is how it promises pleasure but delivers bondage. The stronger our attachment, the more we chain and bind ourselves to objects, situations, people, places – believing they have the power to make us happy when only we have that power, and then becoming so sad and confused when things don’t “work out”. Our partner, for example, cannot make us happy. Check out this video by Will Smith, who says some wise things on this subject.
And if you know how to make yourself happy, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a relationship or not — either works.
Perhaps this seems counter-intuitive at first, but I have found out over the years that non-attachment or non-clinging is what actually allows me to enjoy everything and everyone a lot more. You feel so free. It is the crucial foundation for being able to transform all objects of enjoyment into the bliss of the spiritual path. It dissolves away huge amounts of distraction, confusion, and unsettled feelings, opening up the space in the mind needed to sustain stable love, compassion, concentration, faith, bliss, and wisdom. Without it, I can see clearly how I have one foot on the path to freedom and one foot on the hamster wheel of samsara, which not unsurprisingly encumbers my spiritual progress. As Geshe Kelsang puts it in Meaningful to Behold:
Although the objects of our attachment are transitory, they nevertheless have the power to obstruct our path to freedom.
How lazy, or not, am I?!
One of the biggest obstacles to our spiritual practice is laziness, and there are 3 types, which, I don’t know about you, but in my experience form a vicious circle. The first type is the laziness of attachment, as just described. Then there is the laziness of procrastination – which of course is fairly inevitable if we have the first type, because why practice today what we could put off tomorrow, particularly when there is so much entertainment to be had?! Then, when we don’t experience any deepening inner peace because we’re not actually trying to, we develop the laziness of discouragement, “Man, I can’t do this!” or “This meditation stuff doesn’t work.” So we may as well just watch TV or drink beer instead, back to type 1.
The bliss of the yogis and yoginis
As it says in Meaningful to Behold:
Without a doubt yogis like Milarepa experience bliss that is a thousand times greater than anything we ever experience. Their unsurpassed happiness is due to their inner calm and their complete lack of attachment to external objects, while our suffering and dissatisfaction is due to our complete submersion in attitudes of attachment and aversion for external objects.
While I’m bringing up this wonderful book, have you read the Concentration chapter in Meaningful to Behold lately? I turn to that whenever I need an attachment corrective – whether that is attachment to people, places, fame, fortune, or whatever. It is powerful medicine, but not for the faint-hearted, lol. I have needed this chapter many times over the years and am seriously grateful it exists.
Bit of advice too for when we read these kinds of strong teachings by Shantideva and other Buddhist teachers who don’t mince their words: It is a good idea to start by feeling some peace inside (eg, through allowing your mind to settle in breathing meditation, clarity of mind, or absorption of cessation), identifying with your boundless depth, and remembering your sane wish for real freedom and bliss. Otherwise, if we are not feeling any alternative to attachment, reading about its faults can freak us out, even feel there is nothing worth living for.
Going back to the beginning of this article, what’s all this advice about non-attachment got to do with solving the world’s problems, you may be asking? A lot, as it turns out. Attachment is our biggest distraction to doing anything significant about other people’s suffering and its causes.
Okay, we seem to be out of time. Continued here with How to have a productive day.
Over to you …. I’d love to hear how you transform objects of attachment into objects of non-attachment.