Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  If you can do something about it, do it

(6.10) If something can be remedied
Why be unhappy about it?
And if there is no remedy for it,
There is still no point in being unhappy.

We must try to stop ourself becoming unhappy.  Why? Because the anger that may well follow will disturb my peace of mind, it will prevent me from fulfilling my spiritual wishes, it will cause my practice of virtue to decline.

We stop becoming unhappy by training in patient acceptance.  We will talk about this a lot over the next several months of posts.  But this verse is particularly important in this regard.  If there was one verse from the entire chapter we should memorize, this would be it.  The logic here is so simple:  for any situation there are two possibilities:  we can do something about it or we can’t.  If we can do something about it, we should do it.  So there no reason to be unhappy.  If we can’t do something about it, we should just accept it.  Our being unhappy about it won’t improve the situation in any way, in fact it will just make us more miserable as we experience it.  So there is never a point in being unhappy or worrying.

This verse explains when we should practice patient acceptance.  Geshe-la gives the example of having a headache.  If we have a headache, there is something we can do about it, namely take an aspirin.  So we should take the aspirin.  But the medicine usually takes about 20 minutes before it kicks in.  There is nothing we can do about this discomfort, so we should patiently accept it.  The same is true for any and all suffering.

In addition to showing how we practice patient acceptance, this example also helps us avoid extreme attitudes towards taking medicines.  Ultimately, of course, the supreme medicine is Dharma.  This should be our ultimate refuge.  If we change our mind towards our sickness, no longer viewing it as a problem, then we will not suffer even if we become terribly sick.  Every few years or so, there is a strand of incorrect thinking which pulses through the Kadampa world where people mistakenly view taking medicine as some fault.  The thinking goes, “by taking medicine we prevent ourselves from learning how to transform our suffering by changing our mind, so therefore it is wrong to take medicine.”  This sort of thinking once rose all the way to the Deputy Spiritual Director and was taught at the ITTP.  But at Geshe-la has clarified again and again, this way of thinking is completely wrong.

First, just as we have created the karma to experience sickness, so too we have created the karma to have medicines.  If one is our karma, then so is the other.  Second, Geshe-la has never once said we shouldn’t take medicine, in fact again and again he has said our attitude towards medicine should be “exactly as normal.”  Third, this logic runs exactly counter to this verse which says if there is something we can do about it, we should do it.  If we shouldn’t take medicine, why should we work to make money, put on clothes to avoid the cold, eat or even breathe.  What really is the difference between taking medicine and putting on clothes or the heater?  Fourth, this advice to not take medicine is hurtful to those who could otherwise enjoy relief from the medicine.  At a minimum, if people don’t take their medicine they will experience more pain; at worst, their sickness might become worse and worse and they never recover.  Sure, it sounds all heroic to hear of stories of people who forewent medicine, but unseen are the thousands of others who suffered more unnecessarily due to this wrong advice.  Fifth, this sort of advice can bring the Dharma into disrepute.  Other people will hear that Kadampas avoid taking medicine, and then people will criticize us as being extreme fanatics, causing fewer people to enter into the Dharma.  If an individual practitioner, as a personal decision, feels it is more beneficial for their practice to forego medicine, that is their individual choice.  But such a thing should not be publicized nor publicly praised for all the reasons just explained.  Our job is to “remain natural while changing our aspiration.”  It is normal to take medicine, Kadampas should too.

In particular, I want to say a few words about taking psychiatric medicines.  People might say, “OK, I agree, we should take our aspirin, cholesterol medicine and even our chemotherapy, but surely taking psychiatric medicines is wrong.  Mental problems require mental solutions.”  This sort of thinking fails to grasp that most psychiatric problems are physical in nature arising from chemical imbalances in the brain.  Physical problems need physical solutions.  Further, sometimes psychiatric illness is so extreme that the person is unable to handle the issue on their own without the medicines, no matter how hard they try.  The mental sickness so incapacitates them that they are incapable of getting better on their own.  The medicines put the person back in the zone where the person’s mental efforts can take the person across the finish line.  I have had a karma in my to know many Dharma practitioners with psychiatric problems.  In each case, telling them to not take medicine was wrong advice and telling them to take their meds was the correct advice.

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