Practical precepts for a Bodhisattva wannabe

Given that we have to go to work and/or haconnectionng out and/or social media (verb yet?) with lots of other people, there are umpteen opportunities in our modern lives to observe the Bodhisattva’s vow, where we take personal responsibility to travel the path to enlightenment for the sake of others by practicing the six perfections.

Just to retrace our steps for a moment …

When we develop a compassion that wishes to free everyone permanently from their suffering, it doesn’t take much to figure out that we can’t actually do that while remaining limited, identifying “Me” on the basis of only this impure & ordinary body and mind.

I was just thinking today, for example — when someone was mildly complaining that they never saw me — that although I too would like to hang out with them all the time, there is just one of me. And how much handier it would be if there were more of me, so I could be in more than one place at a time.

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I only live here at the moment.

So that got me to thinking, “Hmmm, how can I get around this problem and have more time and fun with everyone?! I mean, Skype and FaceTime have their uses, but still …

Wait, I have an idea! A Buddha can be everywhere all at once, and help and bless not just a small circle of friends, but each and every living being every day – that’s her job description! I’m going to use this life to become a Buddha.”

With that conclusion, we have generated bodhichitta. Then we engage practically in the six perfections with this big, beautiful motivation, working on different levels as mentioned in this last article.

Within that, I find it very encouraging to know that with the six perfections there is always something we can be doing to solve our own and others’ problems.

#2 Moral discipline 

This second perfection, that of moral discipline or ethical behavior, includes avoiding negativity and benefiting others. As a rule of thumb, we can ask ourselves before doing stuff:

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“Is this action going to help or harm others? If it will harm them, I won’t do it.”

This question can free us from hypocrisy, ie, saying one thing and doing another, and keep us real. We can become a shining light on the hill through the power of our genuine example.

#3 Patient acceptance

And we can be patient when things and people don’t work out; for example, when they ignore or cannot receive our help, and fall over into the swamp despite our best attempts to prevent this.

Avoiding the downfalls of the Bodhisattva vow

As well as training in the six perfections, the Bodhisattva vow also entails avoiding the 46 secondary and 18 root downfalls related to these six, many of which I find refreshingly appropriate to our modern society. I thought I’d share a fairly random selection, in the hopes you are inspired to find out all about them in the book The Bodhisattva Vow.

Enjoying ourselves more

One of the downfalls related to the perfection of giving, “Indulging in worldly pleasures out of attachment,” reminds me that it is not our work that is currently distracting us from making spiritual progress, helping other people, or even enjoying ourselves, but our attachment to externals! This doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy our lives, but that we can enjoy our lives with bodhichitta motivation.

A few weeks ago I was at the beautiful Echo Lake in Colorado with my friend and he said, “I would love to bring a busload of kids from the south side of Chicago up here.” We can mandala offeringalways invite others in, mentally, to our enjoyments — “May all beings enjoy such Pure Lands”, as we say in the mandala offering.

This makes our enjoyments instantly meaningful, good karma, and, in my experience, more blissful.

Plus, if we actually have some bodhichitta, we may find we have more energy to immerse into interesting Dharma books and classes, and less energy to waste on social media and TV 😉 Even changing that direction to go inward a little bit can help a lot, I have found.

Related to the perfection of giving, we also need to avoid “Not replying to others”, which basically means “we try to make others’ minds happy by giving suitable answers anIMG_2211d advice.” We don’t have to be appointed as a teacher or sit on a throne to share our experiences – we can talk about these ideas wherever we go, whenever we are with others who are receptive. For example, if someone at work is suffering from jealousy or anxiety, we can give them common-sense advice on rejoicing and finding some peace, without having to use any of the Buddhist terminology.

Avoiding time suck

Similarly, it is not engaging in the world that is sucking up all our precious time, it is our distractions. This is implied by the fact that Bodhisattvas “accept gifts” and “accept invitations” whenever they can! Related to the perfection of moral discipline, they also avoid “Doing little to benefit others” – not “needlessly shunning wealth, reputation, or involvement with other people.” With bodhichitta, we can increase our wealth and reputation provided we use it to help others.

Also related to moral discipline, Bodhisattvas promise to “help others avoid negativity,” “go to the assistance of those in need”, “take care of the sick”, “act to dispel suffering”, “help others to overcome their bad habits”, and so on. You can read about all of these if you get a moment. Lovely.

Universal CompassionAnd then, if you are still interested, do check out the vows and commitments of training the mind in the book Universal Compassion. These also give modern-day people like me a lot of practical advice on working on many levels to bring both temporary and ultimate help.

Crucially, perhaps — if we never lose sight of our main aim of attaining enlightenment for the benefit of every living being, then, regardless of how many things don’t work out or “go wrong”, nothing will be wasted. Every single day will be a step in the right direction.

Related articles

Developing a Bodhisattva’s confidence

Developing a Buddha’s omniscience 

Integrity and ethics 

More on patient acceptance 

How to be kind according to Buddhism

Buddha kindWith consideration for others we determine to avoid negativity because we don’t want to hurt others. (This carries on from this article.) Non-harmfulness is the guiding principle in Buddhism. No one who deliberately harms others is a follower of Buddha ~ the chief refuge commitment he gave to be a Buddhist is:

Not to harm others.

So we develop love and compassion in our hearts, and then put our money where our mouth is, as it were, by developing the determination to avoid actions that would disturb or harm others. Our self-cherishing desires are like a black hole that can never be filled, so, as it says in Transform Your Life:

Before we act on a wish we should consider whether it will disturb or harm others, and if we think that it will we should not do it.

That’s a good rule of thumb.

Also we need to try and practice consideration whenever we are with other people, as Geshe Kelsang says – which means any other people! Not just a few people whom we want to impress. Buddhist moral discipline is practical, not abstract – there is no point developing compassion for all those people in China and then acting crazy around our co-workers. How we behave with the people under our nose, whether these are the people we’d choose to be with or not, is where the rubber hits the road, where we get to really manifest what is going on in our hearts in our verbal and physical actions. One of my favorite sayings is in Meaningful to Behold:

We should not act as if we are sleepwalking or allow our habits to dominate our behavior.

Making a determination is moral discipline, and it means we are awake due to mindfulness, not allowing ourselves to be dominated by our habitual delusions. Who else are we going to practice this with, if not the people we are presented with each day, whether friend, enemy, or total stranger?

Way to make friends

If we are considerate, Geshe Kelsang says, people will like and respect us. Makes sense – people like us generally based on the way we make them feel, as opposed to whether we are scintillatingly fascinating, witty, and gorgeous to look at (I’m talking about like as in affection, not attachment, here.) If the people around us think that we are basically trustworthy, that we are not out to get them, and that in fact we are interested in their welfare, they will probably like us. (Doesn’t mean we can’t be fascinating too …)

Genuinely goodgreatest test

Integrity is important – the same study showed that we try to get away with appearing better than we are, whereas would it not be more cool to appear good because we ARE good?! (Funny how the Sanskrit word for moral discipline, “shi la”, literally means “coolness”.)

Sense of shame and consideration help us overcome this disconnect, this hypocrisy, this pretension and deceit, and become genuinely good people. As it says in Transform Your Life:

Whether we are a good person or a bad person depends upon whether or not we have sense of shame and consideration for others.

No guilt though

Confession time. When I took Marty out one day, in the big “historic” January New York blizzard that never was, he pooped right in the middle of a wide and deep puddle. I had on shoes, not boots, and I tried to get to it, but the puddle was about 9 inches deep, so I gave up. I did notice that I had self-cherishing attachment to my dry feet over someone else’s stepping in poop, and it wasn’t pretty. But, having acknowledged that, I did not let myself feel too bad about it. Why?!clean up after dog

Because sense of shame is not guilt — perhaps it is the opposite as guilt holds onto the baggage and identifies with the negativity, “Oh, I’m such a horrible person! What’s the point!” We feel worthless and unmotivated. Whereas with sense of shame or consideration, when we do something less than stellar we don’t beat ourselves up but recognize we did it under the influence of our enemy, the delusions, and so we can purify and move on.

We are not fixed or inherently anything — in fact the me who didn’t pick up after my dog has already gone out of existence, thanks to impermanence, leaving me free to identify with my pure nature and re-impute or re-identify myself as a decent dog-owner once again, to greet the new moment and Marty’s new bowel movement. (Wish I could say I picked up another dog’s poop to make up for it, and to make me seem better than I am … but I didn’t 😉  Ah well, at least I picked up all Marty’s poop after that, making sure I always had on my Wellies.)

You are your own witness

And others cannot police us; we have to just do this thing ourselves. I will leave you as I started in the last article, with another piece of memorable advice from Buddha: You are your own witness

What would a Buddhist do?

change mindWhen asked to sum up his lifetime’s teachings, Buddha managed with his typical genius to condense all 84,000 of them into one short verse:

Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good,
Control the mind.
This is the teaching of Buddha. ~ Vinaya Sutras

In Transform Your Life, in the section “A Daily Practice”, Geshe Kelsang explains how we can do this with 6 daily practices, 2 of them being sense of shame and consideration for others, which are both characterized by a determination to refrain from negative actions. These enable us to live a kind, ethical life.

Raising our standards ~ sense of shame

Sense of shame helps us avoid negative actions by appealing to our Jiminy Cricket-type conscience, avoiding inappropriate actions for reasons that concern ourself, eg, because we’re a dad, a Buddhist, a Christian, a teacher, etc. You know that old saying: “What would a [fill in the gap] do?!”

So what kind of conscience we have depends on whom we are identifying ourselves with. If we feel pretty worthless, we won’t care much about our behavior, there won’t seem to be much point – and some studies on poor prison sense of shamebehavior bear this out. If we identify with being a spiritual practitioner, for example, or a teacher, an adult, a doctor, a social worker, or even just a decent human being, we will care that our actions are in keeping with that.

As we are not fixed, we can identify with being what is most beneficial (without grasping at it.)

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander

I read a study somewhere once on behavior around the water cooler at the office, where apparently 90% of the conversation revolves around other’s moral failings 🙂 “Ooh, guess what so and so did … left the lights on all night, don’t they care about global warming! Didn’t pick up after their dog, so gross and selfish. Ran off with someone else’s partner, how could they!” etc.

These double standards are interesting and utterly in keeping with our tendency to externalize all faults, many of them in fact just projections of our own faults. Do we love rummaging around in the garbage cans of others’ faults or strolling in the sweet-smelling meadows of their good qualities?! Without sense of shame, we might agree with the principles of ethical behavior and be quite happy to have others abide by them, yet, when we are tempted by attachment, we might also leave the lights on all night and think it doesn’t matter because we are some kind of exception and the planet won’t mind. We might not pick up after our dog if we are in a hurry because we have better things to do. We might run off with other people’s partners because this is true love. We stonesmight not, in other words, remove the plank from our own eyes before attempting to remove the mote from the eyes of others. As Atisha says in a well-known Buddhist saying:

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

The same goes for our behavior. Moral outrage is fine when we actually have a leg to stand on, so that is what we need to check — do we?! Why be judgmental, high and mighty, or goody two shoes? We need to be genuine and humble in our wish to be better. As it says in Advice from Atisha’s Heart (the whole text of which is available here!)

Do not look for the faults of others, but look for faults in yourself, and purge them like bad blood.

Do not contemplate your own good qualities, but contemplate the good qualities of others, and respect everyone as a servant would.

An ex’s father was fond of saying that he’d read a study which found that, when questioned, each member of a couple always said they did 70% of the housework. (And this is no different if you question anyone in any shared living arrangement, where people often complain that they are doing more than their fair share.) You gotta wonder why the math doesn’t add up — and the article said it is because we are keenly aware of all the work we do as we are with ourselves all the time, whereas we only see a fraction of what others are doing. Thinking of our own good qualities and others faults, perhaps, rather than the other way round …!?

Rationalizations, justifications …

moral ethicsWhen we are under the influence of delusions we rarely think we are wrong at the time — we can justify and rationalize almost any behavior. We almost always have the perfect excuse (even though no one else has any excuse.) This is why sense of shame comes in handy because all the time we are identified with being, for example, an adult, we’ll naturally not behave like a four-year old. While we are identified with being a doctor or social worker or a teacher — when that is our basis of imputation for our sense of self, when that is who we think we are — we’ll naturally avoid actions that seem out of keeping or inappropriate. While we are identified with being even just a decent human being, we are far less likely to do something un-decent, even if no one is watching us.

What goes around, comes around

MartyWith sense of shame, we also consider karma – we avoid a negative action because we don’t want to experience its negative result, a bad experience. If you are wondering what is with this mention of dog poop, I just looked after a big black Labrador called Marty for 3 weeks, and learned far more than I ever needed or wanted to know about dog poop on the streets of New York. So, for example, when  I’m about to leave the dog poop because it is inconvenient to wade through a foot of snow with the wrong shoes, and, besides, no one is looking, I can remember that I am creating the cause to tread in dog poop myself down the road. And because karma increases, if I don’t purify this action I could end up treading in dog poop, or worse, hundreds of times. So better just to pick up in the first place.

Next time, consideration for others.

How to win friends and influence people (according to Buddhism)

moral discipline in Buddhism is not goody two shoesSometimes I think we approach moral discipline the wrong way around, thinking of all the things we’d have to give up and deny ourselves if we really went for it, making our lives dull and hard work; and how we’ll be plagued with guilt the moment we put a step out of place. And perhaps we worry that meantime all our characterful, devil-may-care friends will find us really boooring…

But I think that moral discipline is really our way of not harming others and helping them instead. It makes us into a kind, reliable, happy, interested friend whom everyone wants to hang out with. Others can trust us, and are a great deal more likely to help us out when we need it.

Ten negative actions

Buddha Shakyamuni said:

“Anyone who deliberately harms others is no follower of mine.”

moral ethics according to BuddhismWithin that, he advised us to avoid the so-called ten negative actions as our bottom-line moral discipline. We avoid killing and violence – and don’t you generally prefer to be around people like that? We avoid stealing, including stealing others’ partners – again, people appreciate us for that, and trust us. I know that I prefer to hang out with someone who will lift my spirits by not bitching on about others’ faults – sure, it can seem like a fun way to pass 15 minutes by the water cooler, but it always leaves a sour taste in the mind. We usually like people whom we know are not coveting our things or plotting to harm us or scorn us or slander us as soon as we hit any kind of road block. We enjoy the company of people who have open, curious minds, not closed minds through holding onto wrong views. We are more comfortable around someone who is not out of control through drinking and drugs (unless perhaps we are out of control ourselves). We like people with integrity.

It feels good to be around peaceful, relaxed people, and moral discipline leads to a more controlled and therefore peaceful mind.

“Pure societies”

Geshe-la statue in temple at Manjushri Centre EnglandLike Je Tsongkhapa before him, Geshe Kelsang has said that he would like to create “pure societies” where people improve their cherishing of others and moral discipline together, encouraging each other. This does not refer to being an exclusionary, judgmental, “superior” goody two-shoes, much less losing our passion for life or our sense of humor. As mental freedom opens up in our mind through bringing our actions under control, we have a far lighter, happier, and more entertaining time, and this reflects in the people around us.

We have just had the International Kadampa Festival in Portugal, with inspiringly clear and do-able teachings from Geshe Kelsang himself. Over seven thousand people* gathered from around the world for six days in the Hippodrome in Cascais, all doing their best to refrain from harming others and to help them instead. It was impressive. For me, the Festival in Portugal demonstrated that Geshe Kelsang’s vision for a pure society is not so far-removed from current reality – in fact, people remarked that it was easier to cherish others than not to in that environment.  Peter from Poland, the cousin of a close friend who was on his first trip to any kind of Kadampa gathering, remarked that he had never seen so many peaceful, smiling people, and “They didn’t even mind me going through their bags!” (he was on bag check in case you’re wondering). Portugal Festival 2

Your turn: do you agree or not that moral discipline can make life less boring and more enjoyable for you and your circle?

*The gathering

While on the subject of 7,200 people practicing moral discipline at the same time, I just wanted to add something … I found it fascinating that far too many causes and conditions to count were involved in the arising of this Festival, a Festival that had been talked about for a very long time and then appeared for six magical, dream-like days. The feat of organization, transforming an empty hippodrome into a Pure Land for 7,200 people, was supplemented by the umpteen intentions, conversations, imputations, and travel plans created over months and years by individuals all around the globe — from Lisbon to Zululand. (And if we take all the karma from past lives into account…)

The statue

statue of Geshe Kelsang GyatsoMeanwhile, countless more causes and conditions came together to produce the  queue snaking out of the Festival shop, where people waited just a few more minutes to buy their statue of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. This statue is exactly the same as the new statue of Geshe Kelsang that arrived in the World Peace Temple in England this summer, except for being only six inches tall. These 2,000 statues too travelled a very long way, in a shiny red box, complete with a throne, hat, and khatanga. Seven weeks previously they were in China, then they travelled the globe via Hong Kong, Malaysia, up the coast of Sri Lanka, up the red sea past Mecca, past the pyramids, into the Mediterranean. Three days holidays in Algiers and a week in Spain, then a whole day waiting in customs less than two miles from the Hippodrome in Cascais. They arrived at the Festival just on the day it started, phew, along with the thousands of travelling Kadampas. They have been privately sponsored and all proceeds go to the International Temples Fund. Geshe-la statue in Madeira

The Festival has now dissolved like a rainbow into the sky because its innumerable causes and conditions have ceased. (Though not inherently–there will be positive effects arising individually and collectively from this Festival for years to come.) Now there are pictures of Geshe-la statues all over the world appearing on Facebook, as he continues to travel far and wide. What do you make of that?!