Let’s face it, life is hard! All day, every day, we are confronted with problems and difficulties. At home, at work, in the family, within our bodies, in the environment or in the world. Yes, there are occasional moments of luck and good fortune, but for the most part we spend most of our life dealing with problems, and it wears us down. This is definitely true with parents of small children. It is very hard work taking care of kids, especially little ones. It is definitely much harder and more demanding to take care of kids than it is to work in some office. And in most families nowadays, both parents work and take care of their kids. So both parents essentially have two full-time jobs. From the early morning hours of getting everybody ready for the day until when the kids finally go to bed, it is non-stop work. And even after the kids go to bed, you then need to deal with paying bills, chores around the house, and that mountain of administrative paperwork required in modern life. Usually by the end of the day, the only thing we can do is collapse! This is the reality, and indeed the very nature of, modern family life. With such demanding days, people quite naturally need some means for decompressing and for taking a break. We also feel that for all of this hard work we do, all the struggle, we need to have something ‘good’ in life that makes us happy. We feel like if we don’t have some means of relaxing we will literally go insane. It is true, we need a break, and it is true, we need to have something good. But how we take that break and what good thing we turn to is the central question. In a future article, I will discuss home healthy ways of relaxing, but first I want to discuss some of the unhealthy ways we do.
Modern life is full of options for how we can entertain ourselves and “treat ourselves” to something “good.” The problem is we usually seek refuge from life’s challenges in the wrong things and with the wrong mental attitude. We, generally speaking, seek refuge in things that promise to give us happiness but in reality harm us. Normally, we say something is “deceptive” if it promises one thing, but delivers the exact opposite.
There are some things which are just “the wrong things” to take refuge in. These days, for most people, the three “wrong things” which give us the most trouble are taking intoxicants, being obsessed with sex and entertaining ourselves with violence. I think we can also add to this list lying and gratifying our sense powers, such as with “luxury” goods and services. What follows is an explanation how each of these things is “deceptive”. If we no longer believe the hype, we will no longer be fooled into taking refuge in these things. In fact, the more we see clearly their deceptive nature, the more we hear or think of the lies the more we will become disgusted at how deceptive these things really are!
We will now try identify how and why these objects are deceptive. When we see their lie, we cut their power over us and from there we can break free of their influence.
- Taking intoxicants. Here, the ones that give us the most difficulty are alcohol, cigarettes and soft drugs like marijuana or ecstacy. Alcohol promises to help us relax and let go of our inhibitions (so we can have fun), cigarettes promise to make us look cool and give us a buzz (they also promise ‘a break’ from our normal work), and soft drugs promise a funky experience. The reality, though, is alcohol makes us do stupid things, cigarettes are slow-motion suicide/cancer sticks, marijuana attacks our mental factor intention where the only thing we want to do is more marijuana at the expense of everything else, and ecstacy gives us an intense surge of pleasure the result of which is for the rest of our lives everything else seems bland and boring (so for one moment of pleasure we get a lifetime of ‘blah’ experience of everything else).
- Being obsessed with sex. There is nothing wrong with sex per se, but let’s be honest, as a society we are obsessed with sex. Hollywood and Madison Avenue know that nothing sells better than sex. Have a can opener to sell? Have a hot babe hold it, and it will sell! Young men (and old) feast on endless sexual images, warping their views to the point where women cease to be conceived of as anything other than a sex object. Porn used to be back alley and brown paper bag, now it is mainstream. Our society is so sexualized, that young girls today voluntarily transform themselves into sex objects as a means of fitting in and living up to society’s expectations, thus robbing themselves of any sense of self-worth beyond their sexual attraction. How much money do we spend on dates and exotic vacations just so we can get laid?!? How many relationships have been destroyed by infidelity? Obsession with sex makes us crazy, where we are willing to risk everything for it, our reputation, our position, our family, and sadly our spiritual life. Think about Bill Clinton, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Anthony Wiener, some Catholic Priests, and many a spiritual leader – all brought down by obsession with sex.
- Entertaining ourselves with violence. Few of us ever commit violence ourselves (except against insects, which we don’t give a second thought to…), but most people in modern society rejoice in it and are entertained by it all the time. From the Gladiators of ancient Rome to action “heros” of Hollywood, violence has always been one of our favorite forms of entertainment. Here’s the problem: from a karmic perspective, there is little to no difference between engaging in violence ourselves and rejoicing in it being committed. We essentially create the same karma from rejoicing in violence as committing it ourselves. If you really take this in, this is a very scary thought. Video games that glorify violence or enable kids to enact it leave powerful impressions on the mind about how to solve problems while also giving them a similitude of the karma of actually committing such violence themselves.
- Lying. This seems a strange one to add to the list, but it is actually quite common. Because life is so hard, we are very often willing to lie to make our life easier. In this sense, it too is an attempt by us to relax or escape life’s challenges. From early childhood on, we lie to avoid getting in trouble. We lie to our partners, we lie to our bosses, we lie on our taxes, we lie to ourselves. Lying and cheating (and stealing) usually go hand in hand (in hand). We may even “get away with” our lies externally, but karmically we never do. When we lie, we not only create the causes for others to deceive us in the future (thus guaranteeing we will always be led astray in the future), we also create the causes for nobody to ever believe us (thus robbing us of our ability to ever help others in the future when we are well intended). It only takes one lie to destroy somebody’s trust in us forever. Lying also destroys our self-confidence like a cancer. Inside, we know we are a sham and do not feel like we are capable of anything ourselves. Cheating and lying can become such a way of life that we will often put more effort into cheating than it would take to actually succeed. When we lie we sacrifice our dignity and integrity, and when we lose these there is nothing holding us back from all other forms of negativity.
- Gratifying our sense powers. For the very rich, this has always been common. Surrounding ourselves with every luxury and indulging ourselves in every pleasure. But lately, this has gone mainstream. Luxury soaps, creams, towels, sheets and scents fill our malls. “Spas” which promise to indulge our every sense pleasure have become quite common. We spend obsence amounts of money for luxury cars, homes, vacations and entertainment systems. The debt crises in both Europe and the U.S. have been fueled by consumers borrowing against their future to satisfy their desires for luxury today. But no matter how much luxury we ever indulge ourselves in, there is always something more luxurious over the horizon. We endlessly chase the end of the rainbow, but like ecstacy, the only result is more and more of the world becomes bland and boring for us. Yesterday’s luxury become today’s banal. From a karmic perspective, we burn up our merit like a blazing inferno. In the future, we will have no karmic provisions left for the long road ahead.
Virtually all of society is organized around the pursuit of the five deceptive objects discussed before. They are our modern gods, and we sacrifice everything for them. But they are all deceptive. The test of a reliable object of refuge is simple: the more you have of it, the more protection and relief it gives you. All of these things are the opposite. In the beginning, it takes only a little of these things to give us great ‘pleasure’, later it takes more to get the same amount of pleasure, later still it takes even more to get less pleasure, penultimately it takes even more still just to feel normal, and finally it takes a tremendous amount to just not feel awful.
In an ultimate sense, of course, everything is empty. All things are equally empty and so equally transformable, so why do we say certain objects or things are to be abandoned? Let’s get real here! Just because in theory something can be transformed doesn’t mean, at our current level of spiritual development, we ourselves can transform it! More likely than not, we use the fact that in theory something can be transformed as a rationalization for indulging ourselves in something we know we shouldn’t do. Doing so is to completely misuse spiritual teachings, and creates the cause to never meet pure spiritual instructions again in the future. Without access to qualified spiritual instructions, how can we ever hope to attain real freedom for ourselves or be able to help our loved ones do the same? The honest reality is this: at the early stages of our spiritual training, we are not even remotely capable of transforming these objects and to even try is either self-deception or simply too dangerous. At the later stages of our spiritual training, these things no longer tempt us at all so we have no interest in even turning to them in the first place (not to mention, how turning to them would set a bad example for others). So I think we can safely say, if you feel tempted to turn to these things you are not yet able to transform them, so don’t lie to yourself and risk destroying your one shot at spiritual freedom.
The foundations of Buddhist moral discipline are the pratimoksha and refuge vows. Quite simply, these say “don’t take refuge in the wrong things (pratimoksha vows) and do take refuge in the right things (refuge vows).” The pratimoksha vows are to abandon killing (and by implication harming), stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and taking intoxicants. It’s interesting how the list of the pratimoksha vows pretty much sums up the five things listed above… Venerable Geshe-la explains in Modern Buddhism that the essential meaning of the refuge vows is to “make effort to receive Buddha’s blessings, to put the Dharma into practice and to receive help and inspiration from your spiritual friends.” Moral discipline in a Buddhist context is not externally imposed, rather it is internally adopted. It is an inner wisdom that protects us from going down roads we know are self-destructive and sends us along correct paths that lead us to where we really want to go. We do not resent our moral discipline any more than we resent street signs pointing us in the direction we want to go. But before we can adopt any form of moral discipline, we must take the time to examine and realize how we are taking refuge in deceptive things and instead we need to seek our respite in that which is indeed reliable.
Your turn: What is a deceptive thing that you have taken refuge in. Describe how and why it proved deceptive.