What is purification practice?

Vajrasattva.png
See p. 87-88 of Oral Instructions for a Vajrasattva purification practice — short & sweet, but powerful.

For the inner demons who do not come out into the open, or at least only in such shadowy ways that we cannot properly identify them, purification is immensely helpful. It is also very helpful when we are overwhelmed by appearances and need extra help in overcoming them.

Lay down that burden

A lot of people are laboring under a heavy burden of unresolved sadness, which may be why they don’t like being left alone with their own thoughts for even 12 minutes.

Stubborn recurrent sadness is still no match for purification practice – and we can feel that we are purifying not just that karmic appearance or karmic tendency but ALL similar versions since beginningless time. For example, if you have been suffering from attachment, you can use that as an example, and purify all your attachment since karma 4beginningless time. If you have been getting irritated with the sweet people around you despite your best intentions, you can purify your needless irritation since beginningless time. If you are feeling depressed because “things just aren’t what they used to be!”, you can even purify all that despondency since beginningless time.

Magnet for misfortune

Bad karma is a magnet for misfortune. And it ripens in different ways, for example irritation or anger we have had in the past can ripen as an experience (eg, someone does something we find really annoying) or in the tendencies we have to react in a certain way (eg, we get really annoyed.) Karma also ripens in the way our environment in general appears to us (eg, not quite right, uncomfortable), and even in the type of rebirth we have taken. You can read all about these four fascinating effects of karma in that chapter in Joyful Path of Good Fortune. They explain a lot.

karma 3So if we don’t like something that is happening to us or how we feel about it or indeed how we are reacting, this is a perfect reminder to us to purify this karma. Taking responsibility for our karma can turn our lives around, as Gen-la Khyenrab said the other day.

The power of promise

The power of promise is one of the four opponent powers of good purification practice, and it purifies our heavy tendencies to negativity that we lug around with us from familiarity with these in the past. So after a good purification practice, we promise not to do that thing, whatever it is, again. But, as a friend of mine was saying yesterday, sometimes it’s hard to know what exactly to promise. For example, declaring “I will never get angry again!” and a host of other big promises is unrealistic – we are likely to forget them sooner or later and blow it. So we then get discouraged that we are not keeping our promises, wondering if we’ll ever remember them for longer than ten minutes, and whether there is even any point in making any more promises when we are so useless at keeping them.

What I like to do to make effective promises, I told her, is tie in my purification practice to whatever is coming up in my life – as part of my mind-training, transforming difficulties. For example, in her case, she has been feeling despondent because something she really wanted to happen didn’t happen, and she also blames herself because that is her tendency. Soooo, what I would do in that situation, having recognized karmathat tendency in me, is purify that situation, and while I am at it to purify all my tendencies to feeling despondent and lacking self-worth since beginningless time. Then, once my mind felt all cleaned up from this tendency due to a good purification practice, I’d promise to not feel despondent again in similar circumstances. I am likely to remember that promise as it ties into what I am up against and I therefore have a vested interest in remembering it, in incorporating it into my mind-training. And it is powerful because I want it; it is not a vague open-ended promise, but one stemming from my everyday wishes to stay happy despite this thing or that thing not working out.

Phew! I can get rid of all of it!

35-Confession-BuddhasEven when we are a bit vaguer about all the negative actions we need to purify and the kinds of effects these are specifically wreaking on our day-to-day lives, it still works very well to do a general spring-clean of our mind. I really enjoy doing prostrations to the 35 Confession Buddhas first thing in the morning (and before you get impressed, it takes less than 10 minutes), purifying basically everything I could possibly ever have done. There are some great words in that Mahayana Sutra (written by Buddha Shakyamuni himself), such as “I confess without concealing or hiding anything.” The Buddhas know exactly what we need to purify even if we don’t; that’s an advantage of omniscience. So we praise them: “Who have become witnesses, who have become valid, who see with their wisdom.”

Dry rot creeps up on us without us noticing, until the fabric of our house is destroyed. We’ve forgotten the vast majority of our negative minds and actions, which is why we contemplate these when we purify – not to feel bad but because we want all the mold, visible or not, to be gone as it is affecting our minds and our lives. We purify our greatest delusion first, whatever keeps coming up; but at the same time we want to purify the whole lot, and we can. Our negativity is mere imputation and literally no match for omniscient wisdom.

Turn on the lights for goodness sake!

You know how horror movies always take place at night in the pitch black and you just wish someone would turn on all the lights? And you know the darkness of our ignorance? The Confession Buddhas and Buddha Vajrasattva throw open the shutters to broad cosmic daylight and the sunshine streams in everywhere.karma 1

The ultimate purification is mixing with the mind of bliss and emptiness so that we destroy our ordinary appearances and conceptions – that is what will tear the whole samsaric moldy structure down so we can build ourselves and others a celestial mansion of delight. So we request Vajrasattva:

Please permanently purify my non-virtues, downfalls, and ordinary appearances and conceptions.

And then let him enter through our crown, dissolving into our “inner darkness”, vanquishing it instantly and permanently.

Whether we are doing Vajrasattva purification or the 35 Confession Buddhas practice, we feel their purity flooding into us, we don’t hold back. Our negativity doesn’t exist from its own side – like everything else, it is mere aspect of mind. Purify the mind by mixing it with the extraordinary bliss and wisdom of enlightened beings and where’s that negativity going to go? Nowhere, is where — it disappears, because it is only appearance to mind.

karma 2Build some purification practice into our daily lives, therefore, and we can relax — as Gen-la Khyenrab also said the other day. And it doesn’t have to take long, especially if you are convinced it is working. How long does it take to switch the lights on?

I believe there is nothing that a well-aimed Vajrasattva mantra cannot purify.

We don’t talk about the subconscious in Buddhism but we do talk about subtle and very subtle levels of mind and, even if we can’t yet reach these directly ourselves, the Buddhas certainly can as, in fact, this is their abode, their being. It’s where they hang out. Kind of fun to hang out with them, don’t you think?!

Good purification is like having a massive spring clean of the mind, it feels amazing, uplifting. We feel that we can do anything now, for the slate is clear, today is a brand new day.

Over to you! Comments and queries on purification practice are welcome.

Ain’t no thing

BuddhaIn the last few days I’ve had a few things go wrong with this body – none of them worth writing home about, but, added together, annoying enough. Bad allergies, stomach pains, an infected finger, a fever, and less of my taken-for-granted ability to dive into my heart and stay there.

High time to transform this physical suffering because that is what Kadampa Buddhists do – we love suffering! Don’t we?! Hmmm. Maybe. Or at least we try not to mind it too much, and use it to make spiritual progress. Eventually, yes, we love it, for I have met lots of practitioners who love quite major suffering already. I admire them and aspire to their attainments, for then suffering will hold no fear. The end goal is to put a stop to our own and others’ suffering forever, and we use the appearance of suffering to help us get there. So this is a short tale of what I tried today.

(Look, admittedly, this is not going to be an inspiring account of how I transformed cancer. A few minor ailments are nothing in the grand scheme of things, I know that, in fact it is sort of the point; but you have to start somewhere and the important thing is to deal with whatever is arising for you.)

The tale of a sore finger

So this story starts first thing this morning with my finger, or, more precisely, the top inch of my finger. Who knew that such a small area of the body could throb so much! It makes me realize that there is not an inch of my body that is not ready to hurt me, that inevitably will hurt me if I insist on identifying myself with meat and nerve endings.

finger
Yuk.

I made the mistake of looking up infected fingers on Google, to discover the horrible truth that, left untreated, I was about to lose my whole finger… and that the infection could spread to other fingers and (left unsaid but I could see where this was going) I would soon lose my entire hand!!! Aarggh! My finger is now the most important finger in the whole wide world! It has to be saved! Moral of the tale: stop surfing the internet while under the influence of self-cherishing, it doesn’t help. To be fair, Google was useful on the home remedies front, and I’ve been dutifully dipping said finger into a mixture of warm water and apple cider vinegar for 15 minutes several times a day, during which times it is interesting to see how little else gets done.

kitten
Jampa the Kitten

Between finger-soaking and nose-blowing and stomach clutching and general woe-is-me’ness, early this morning I decided to be nice and wash some of the soiled litter off the tiny soft paws of this harmless-looking round kitten. But appearances are deceptive, I discovered not for the first time, when he yowled and sunk his nasty scratchy sharp nails right into my poor swollen finger. I allowed myself a little optimism as the blood spurted, “Perhaps he has lanced this wound, saving me a visit to the doctor for surgery and amputation!”, but alternatively, I then thought, he might have added cat scratch fever to my list of ailments. I’m never going to foster horrible little kittens again …

Aarrghh! self-cherishing feeling sorry for itself and blaming others again … Clearly it was time for some contemplation on all of this, or my day was going to get away from me.

Lesson #1 ~ renunciation

Samsara throws up one problem after another, waves on an ocean. No sooner have we dealt with one thing — the thing we thought was all that was standing in the way of us and unbounded happiness – then something else comes up.

“There’s always something”, as my friend M said to me last week, “until there isn’t.”

And that “isn’t” time will only come when we recognize, reduce, and abandon permanently our self-grasping ignorance, destroying the ocean of samsaric suffering once and for all.

If we think about our suffering out of self-grasping and self-cherishing, we suffer. If we think about it to inspire us to overcome true sufferings and true origins, we have the liberating thought of renunciation, not suffering.lotus 1

This sore finger ain’t no thing — doesn’t matter — as they say, compared with the sufferings of my countless future lives.

We blame others, even kittens, whining away like “childish ones”, as Buddha described us; but all the blame can rightfully be laid on our own self-grasping. Not understanding that the things we normally see do not exist, grasping at a world outside of the mind, we develop self-cherishing, anger, and attachment, which in turn create the contaminated karma that cause our endless problems to appear. Other living beings and situations can only ever be conditions for our own karma to ripen.

Lesson # 2 ~ no self, no problem

To destroy the whole of our samsara with its literally endless problems, we only need to re-think the way we are viewing things. How hard is that, given that we currently have access to all the teachings on how to do it? As the great Yogi Saraha says, in one of my favorite quotes:

lotus 2If your mind is released permanently from self-grasping, there is no doubt that you will be released permanently from suffering.

Or, put this way:

No self, no problem.

The things we normally see do not exist, and that includes ourself, sore fingers, and everything else.

I cannot be found anywhere in my body or mind, and nor can I be found anywhere else. I hurt because I mush my sense of I up with my finger, but I am not my finger. You cannot find me in there, even though I say “Ow, I hurt”, or “This is hurting me,” or even “My finger hurts”. Where is the I that owns the finger? 
Geshe-la

Also, Geshe Kelsang says:

It is true that our body that we normally see does not exist, and there is no body other than this; but we mistakenly believe that our body that we normally see actually exists and, because of this, we experience sufferings of the body such as sickness as a hallucination, as a mistaken appearance, as like a dream. ~ How to Understand the Mind, p. 311

My finger cannot be found in its parts or anywhere else — try pointing to your finger without pointing at its parts.

So the suffering finger that I normally see is not really there — it is like an hallucination, like the suffering in a dream.

This sore finger ain’t no thing, for it cannot be found anywhere.

Lesson # 3 ~ compassion

I decided that my finger was like a portal into the lives of others — those, for example, who have lost limbs in fighting, or those not born with any limbs to begin with, or burn victims with large parts of their skin in agony. Let alone all those in the lower realms. I wouldn’t necessarily think about these people if I didn’t have to transform this paltry finger pain, and so my compassion would not develop.

Similar to renunciation, if we think about our own suffering out of self-cherishing we suffer, but if we use it to think about others’ suffering we develop the wish to free them, which is the peaceful mind of compassion, not suffering. 

Just as I was thinking this, the kittens climbed up onto my shoulders, where they are now as well, and started snuffling into my ears. (Sometime in their journey to safety from the kill shelter in Pampa, Texas they developed upper respiratory problems). It was not hard to see that my suffering is NOTHING compared with theirs, and all I want is for them to be out of those kitten bodies and into human bodies or better, ASAP. How is that going to happen if I don’t make it happen?

This sore finger ain’t no thing compared with the sufferings of countless other living beings.

Lesson # 4 ~ Tantra

There is no suffering in the Pure Land. If out of renunciation and compassion I dissolve everything into bliss and the wisdom realizing that all the things I normally see do not exist — including my entire meaty body, self, mind, and world — I can then appear myself Buddha's handsas Buddha Vajrayogini in the Pure Land, and the basis of suffering has gone for ever. Buddhas’ fingers give rise to nothing but endless bliss and benefit.

So my sore finger is reminding me to go straight away, now, to the Pure Land — why hang out any longer in a meaty body that can hurt all over, and sooner or later no doubt will, especially given my increasing age? Let alone all the bodies I’ll have to keep taking in all my future lives. Nasty stuff. It has to stop now, I have to stop ordinary conceptions and appearances.

I am switching to Keajra channel and staying there, resisting any temptation to flick back to samsara channel on the frankly remote chance that something better might be on. That hasn’t happened yet.

This sore finger ain’t no thing in the Pure Land.

Conclusion

Having had quite some success with this contemplation despite my fever, and feeling pretty darned good by now, I then applied these lines of thought to my running nose and my stomach ache, and threw in a few emotional issues too while I was at it. And, just as Buddha promised, I felt better and better the more grist I threw to the mill.

rainbow swingI even came to the conclusion that I’m loving me some suffering! (However, lets not push it … )

The ability to transform our everyday appearances of suffering into something immensely meaningful and joyful is HUGE, and a major hallmark of a genuine Kadampa. So I’d like to open this conversation up to you — inspire us, have you used Buddha’s teachings to transform your suffering?

Ps, My finger miraculously cured itself while I was writing this.

 

Dealing with our demons

Light in cellarOf the three steps to overcoming our delusions taught in the mind-training teachings of Buddhism, the first is recognizing or identifying them. And that means not just intellectually but in our own minds. We identify them but we don’t identify WITH them — the difference is crucial. (The next two steps are overcoming them by applying their opponents and uprooting them completely with the wisdom that realizes emptiness.)

Monsters in the cellar

It is far better not to repress those bits of our mind that we don’t like. These delusions and the bad karmic appearances they spawn are not intrinsic to our mind but, while we fail to accept that they are there, they continue to lurk in our mental cellar. Even when they don’t jump out and terrify us, they still haunt us. They cause us unease and painful feelings without our even knowing why we are feeling this way. Do you ever find life a bit spooky, or is that just me? I think life is a bit spooky when we are living under the influence of unacknowledged mental monsters. We sort of know they’re all there, which is why we try to keep that cellar door firmly shut and bolted.

We have various strategies to avoid them, as mentioned here, but they’re not really working. You’ve seen horror movies, maybe — you know what people do to try and pretend there are no monsters in the cellar. They blame the creepy neighbors, distract themselves, and/or get blind drunk. Or they try to leave the house, but of course that never goes well (we cannot leave our minds.)monster in the cellar

Whatever they do, the terror still creeps up the stairs and through the cracks in the doors and windows; and it always seems to maintain the element of surprise. They know that, so they are never truly comfortable; they live in fear.

Our refusal to own our delusions pushes them into the cellar, where they exert enormous unseen influence over what we do in life. We need instead to have the confidence and authenticity to bring these inner demons of the delusions out into the open, invite them to show their faces in the light of our pure, indestructible potential, so we can (1) see that there is nothing to be scared of, they are not so intolerable, and we are far bigger and stronger than them; and (2) be prepared to learn from them to see what is really happening in our mind. Check out this article for more on how to do this.

Moving beyond

We cannot completely and whole-heartedly accept who we are or where we’re at if there are aspects of our mind that we are too afraid (or alternatively too self-satisfied) to explore. And if we cannot accept who we are, we cannot change who we are. If we want to improve, we need to take ownership and responsibility for our delusions, taking a good honest look at them rather than denying them or rejecting them outright.

Once we acknowledge instead of avoiding one of these dark traits or habit patterns, it will cease to have the same control over us. We will also see more clearly that we are not our delusions, that they come and go like clouds in a clear sky, like weather.

For example, we cannot move beyond our habitual dislike for others — that, “I don’t really like people very much, at least till I get to know them, and even then…” mind — until we realize we possess this mind of self-protective aversion, which is projecting unlikeability onto the mess of humanity (probably starting with ourselves). At the same time, we need to see that we are not the aversion, that our real nature is connectivity and affection.

One of the most valuable things I did during my longish retreat a few years ago was look at my delusions head on in this way, not papering them over with unapplied generalities of Dharma, not shoving them under the carpet, not pretending they were not shadow 1.JPGthere. I came to discover that when I had a strong delusion, my subsequent meditation session was even stronger as a result, such that I actively came to enjoy my delusions in a funny kind of way, certainly they lost a lot of their power to scare me or influence me. They became more objects of curiosity, of challenge. I’m not saying I have anywhere near mastered this yet, of course; it is a life-long practice and our delusions have many levels. (We always have to be on the look out for complacency and self-satisfaction too, which can rear their lazy heads when our mind is feeling comfortable.) But I do have total confidence in the possibility of genuinely accepting all our delusions, however shadowy, and letting them go with the help of applied Dharma.

More coming later! Meanwhile, please share your comments below on how you deal with the monsters in your cellar.

Martin Luther King and the power of love

This short article below appeared on Kadampa Life in 2011, but the blog was in its infancy so not many of you have seen it. Here it is again, to celebrate Martin Luther King Day today.

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A Kadampa nun gave the annual Martin Luther King lecture at Montana State University last Monday, speaking to about 400 students, professors and community members.

King proved power of love, nonviolence, speaker says

Martin Luther King Jr. achieved incredible changes in American law and society, yet it all sprang from what was within his mind, a philosophy based on love, compassion and wisdom, a Buddhist nun told a Bozeman crowd Wednesday.

Gen Varahi spoke in Washington DC, a breath of fresh air in a city known at the moment mainly for its partisan bickering.

Democrat or Republican, the only way to make a lasting difference in our world is to have a good intention — beginning, middle and end. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in Mahamudra Tantra (page 9):

Wherever we go and whatever we do depends upon our intention. No matter how powerful our body and speech may be, we shall never be able to do anything if we lack the intention to do it. If our intention is incorrect we shall naturally perform incorrect actions, which give rise to unpleasant results, but if our intention is correct the opposite will be true.

As Gen Varahi, a former medical doctor, points out:

King was a hero, who led a movement that took America out of a “very shameful” position to one we can be proud of”… “We can be like Martin Luther King if we train our minds to react with compassion and wisdom…. King’s use of the practical philosophy of nonviolent worked. It showed us the power of love.”

I read last Sunday’s papers yesterday and came to my usual conclusion that the world is a mess.

Africa — disaster
Arab world — disaster
Afghanistan — disaster
American job situation — disaster

And that is just the A’s.

And why? We can point the finger at any number of external causes and conditions, and usually do. In politics different people point fingers at different causes, and then spend most of the time arguing about what they’re pointing at.

But the real causes are the delusions — i.e. unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds — of everyone involved. Anger, greed, ignorance, pride, hubris, hypocrisy, selfishness, the eight worldly concerns… These are all states of mind, nothing external.

Imagine if  they were replaced by love, generosity, wisdom, humility, straightforwardness, honesty, unselfishness, equanimity…?

“King realized that you cannot separate the ends and means”, Varahi said. “Over time, violent methods do not result in peace.”

(See the article for her reply on the efficacy non-violence in the face of violent dictators).

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang is fond of saying:

“Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.”

Atisha, the original Kadampa Teacher, said:

“Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.”

It might sound obvious when we see it, so why do we keep pointing the finger elsewhere when things go wrong?After all, whenever we point a finger, there are four fingers pointing back at us.

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 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.