Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: It doesn’t matter what others think or say

Much of our anger in life comes from people thinking or saying bad things about us.  Shantideva now explores how we can avoid such anger.

(6.52) Since my mind is not a bodily form,
There is no one who can destroy it;
But, because I am strongly attached to my body,
I feel hurt when it is suffering.

(6.53) Contempt, harsh words,
And unpleasant speech
Do not harm the body;
So why, mind, do you become so angry?

Why do we feel the need to retaliate when harsh, slanderous words are spoken?  When people attack us, we become very defensive and filled with pride thinking, talking to us in such a way is definitely not something we will allow.  “No one speaks to us in such ways!”  Generally speaking, we do not tolerate such unpleasant speech.  We take what is spoken to us directly or indirectly so personally. We become so defensive when we hear such words.  Instinctively, quite instinctively, we retaliate. We become angry and we retaliate.  There are many reasons for our retaliation. The main reason, though, is pride and our attachment to our reputation.  I believe one of the most important jobs we have, one of our greatest responsibilities, is to remove all worldly Dharmas and thereby be able to show others the example of being a pure Kadampa.  Such examples are needed in this world, especially now.

(6.54) “Such slanderous words may cause others to dislike you.”
Their dislike will not cause me any harm
In this or future lives;
So why should I not want it?

Such slanderous words may cause others to dislike us.  We may feel as a result of harsh words people will dislike us, and we want people to like us, don’t we? We want people to think well of us. We don’t want people to feel that we are in any way how others seem to think about us, do we? We don’t want that. We don’t want people to dislike us, we want them to love us.  But what difference does it make whether people like us or not?

Should, for example, we want people to like us or even love us? Is it important? Is it important that people do not dislike us? Is it important that people do not have bad feeling towards us? If we want to maintain the purity of our tradition, help Kadam Dharma flourish, then it is important that people not dislike us. It is, isn’t it? Should we then be concerned, and stop people uttering such words? What do we do? Do we act, or not? If we do act, why? With what motivation?

These are not easy questions, and it is very easy for our attachment and selfish motivations to hijack our wisdom to try rationalize why we should care.  In the end, the test is very simple:  do we feel our happiness depends upon what other people think of us?  If yes, then that is attachment.  If no, then it opens up all sorts of valid reasons why we should want people to think good things of us, such as our ability to help them depends upon them having faith in us.

But how do we control what others think of us so that they think good things?  Of course if somebody misunderstands us, we can attempt to clarify if the other person is open to hearing our explanation.  But ultimately, what others think of us is nothing more than a karmic echo of how we have thought about others.  If we want to change what others think about us, we need to change what we think about others.  This will change our karma, and thus change – over time – what others think of us.  From the point of view of emptiness, there is in fact nobody there thinking anything about us.  It is just the karmic appearance of that happening.  So why be bothered when people think ill of us?

I think a lot of our present difficulties with worrying about what others think of us comes from PTSD of our Middle School years.  For me at least, that was hell – but a hell that revolved around obsessive concern over what people thought of us.  If, for whatever reason, we found ourselves on the outside of the group, we were ostracized and it emotionally hurt – badly.  Fortunately, people largely grow out of Middle School, but the trauma remains within us, and so we carry this concern with us well into our adulthood.  Some people never grow out of it.  But we don’t need to judge ourselves for this, we need compassion for ourselves.  We need to look back on those years and request Dorje Shugden, “please bless me to transform all of that hurt into powerful causes of my enlightenment.”  Healing this past hurt will go a long ways to letting go of our obsessive concern with what others think about us now.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: We are harming them by serving as their object of anger

Now is when Shantideva starts to get very radical.

(6.47) Although those who harm me
Are provoked into doing so by my own karma,
It is they who will take rebirth in hell as a result;
So, is it not I who harm them?

(6.48) By depending upon them as my objects of patience,
I can purify many non-virtues;
But by depending upon me as their object of anger,
They will fall for a long time into hellish states of suffering.

(6.49) Thus, since it is I who inflict harm on them
And they who benefit me,
Why, unruly mind, do you distort things so
By becoming angry with them?

Here, Shantideva explains that when we look closely, we see it is not we who are being harmed when somebody tries to harm us – we are purifying our negative karma; rather, it is the other person who is being harmed because they are creating negative karma for themselves.  Seen in this way, we are actually the one receiving benefit and they are the ones being harmed.  Why are they harmed?  Because we have not yet purified the negative karma on our mind to serve as an object of anger for them.  Our unpurified negative karma compels them to harms us.  Besides not retaliating (more on that below), two conclusions can be drawn from this.  First, we must purify our negative karma so that we no longer serve as an object of anger for others; and second, if we can get out of a harmful/abusive situation, we must do so because for us to remain means we are harming the person by continuing to be the object of their anger when we could otherwise escape.

For the most part we try to bring out good things in others.  But we have to acknowledge that we sometimes bring out bad things too. When we bring out these bad things, we can’t get angry with them. Why are those bad things coming out? Why are they acting in the ways that they do, such as getting angry with us, criticizing us, disagreeing with us, not accepting what we want them to do, shouting at us, and so forth?  Perhaps it’s something to do with us. Perhaps we’ve got something to sort out. We cannot get angry with them, if things come out of their mind and they behave in the way that they do, in perhaps harmful or negative ways. We must be patient and help them, really try to help them to change their karma and try to change our own karma.  Especially those with whom we have a strong connection, we must try to help.

We don’t want them to create the cause for even more suffering by getting angry at them through retaliation, making matters worse for them.  If we do, then they will become more upset and more angry, and even develop bad thoughts towards other people.  We need to remind ourselves it is in dependence upon the karma we have created to be their object of harm that they create the cause of suffering.  In this sense, we’re harming them.  We’re harming them simply by being the object of their anger. We harm them by serving as their object of anger.  They benefit us by serving as the object of our patience.  Why on earth do we become angry with them? Surely, we must take the opportunity to practice patience, to be considerate, kind … and return their kindness by patiently helping them.

Thinking in this way naturally gives rise to a series of objections.  Shantideva now explores them.

(6.50) If I maintain this positive view,
I shall not create the cause to be reborn in hell;
But, although I protect myself through the practice of patience,
The same effect will not ripen on others.

From a karmic point of view, when we practice in this way, when others harm us we receive benefit, but they still accumulate negative karma.

(6.51) “Then would it not be better to return their harm?”
No! Retaliation would not protect them;
It would just cause my Bodhisattva vow to degenerate
And destroy my practice of patience.

Perhaps we should be the object of their patience, after all they need to practice patience. We will give them the opportunity. It does happen!  Perhaps we tell someone off because we feel they need to learn patience. This is just our anger hijacking our Dharma to try rationalize getting angry at others.  If we follow this way of doing things, the other person will just get angry back.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: If you don’t like your karma, change it

Kadam Bjorn used to say, “if you don’t like your karma, change it.”  But we have to know how to change it.  We believe that we can change our karma simply or merely by manipulating external circumstance.  That may change what karma ripens, but it does not actually change our karma itself.  Sometimes, in an effort to change our external circumstance, we might create new negative karma.  Even if we don’t, the karma to experience such suffering remains on our mind, and it is just a question of time before we experience it.  Rather than bringing about any change, we often just create the causes for worse things to happen.  If we do, in reality we’re not improving, we’re making things worse for ourselves.  In the short term, in the immediate, we feel there has been some improvement.  But when we think about it from a karmic perspective, we realize that the opposite is the case. There’s been no improvement. We’ve made things worse for ourselves.

If we had deep conviction in karma we’d behave a lot differently. We’d stop getting angry and behaving out of anger.  We’d stop altogether because we understand the consequences of such actions.  First, there is the effect similar to the cause – when we yell at others, from a karmic point of view, we are yelling at ourselves, making ourselves afraid in the future, harming ourselves.  Second, there is the environmental effect – we live in a hostile environment of war, conflict, where anger is the norm and only way to survive.  Third, there is also the ripened effect – we take rebirth in a realm that is the same nature as our anger.  Sometimes we have a hot, firey anger (hot hells); other times it is a cold, icy anger (cold hells); sometimes it is a conflictual anger (Reviving hells).  Finally, there is the tendency similar to the cause – in the future, we will get angry very easily, so we plant all these seeds again and again.  This effect doesn’t just ripen in this life, but will ripen in future lives when we don’t have Dharma and we will have nothing to hold us back.

For example, sometimes we are abused in some way – someone throws verbal abuse at us, criticizes us, shouts at us, engages in some hurtful or harmful speech.  If this happens, we must not react by abusing the other person back.  We must not abuse that person and react to abuse with abuse.  We definitely have imprints to be abused and imprints to abuse.   

What should we do when somebody abuses us?  Of course, if we have a means of stopping them from doing so, we should.  Allowing others to abuse us does not help them, but instead allows them to create all sorts of negative karma for themselves.  If we can’t stop them, but we can get away, then we should get away for exactly the same reasons.  However, sometimes, there is nothing we can do about the abuse we receive.  We can’t stop it and we can’t get away.  In such a situation, we must mentally accept that abuse as a practice of purification of our negative karma. If we don’t accept it, then it’s possible, probable even, that the second type of imprint will ripen – namely the tendency for us to abuse – and so we’ll abuse the other person back.  We’ll criticize that person, retaliate, and shout at that person. And in this way create the cause for receiving more of the same in the future. And so it goes on and on and on.

When we are harmed, at such times patient acceptance will function as a very powerful purifying effect.  We normally think purification practice is primarily doing prostrations, reciting Vajrasattva mantras, and so forth.  But a powerful type of purification we can practice almost every day is to practice patient acceptance, especially at the times when we feel that we’re being harmed in some way.  If we do practice patient acceptance, then we’re allowing virtuous imprints to ripen in our mind. And at the same time we’re creating the cause for good fortune in the future, both internally and externally.  But if we don’t accept and we react angrily, then non-virtuous imprints will ripen in such a mental environment.  Non-virtue will ripen, and we create the cause for bad results, misfortune in the future, both internally and externally.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Looking squarely at our karma

Now Shantideva describes another method for overcoming our wish to retaliate – seeing how undesirable situations are a result of our karma.

(6.42) In such situations, we should think,
“In the past, I harmed others in a similar manner.
Therefore, it is fitting that I, who caused harm to others,
Should now be experiencing such harm myself.”

(6.43) The physical suffering I experience
Is caused by both the stick and my body;
But, since the stick comes from my assailant and the body from me,
With which of these should I get angry?

(6.44) Blinded by craving and ignorance,
I have taken this form, the basis of human suffering,
Which can hardly bear to be touched;
So with whom should I get angry when it is hurt?

(6.45) Although we childish beings have no wish for suffering,
We are greatly attached to its causes.
Thus, the harm we receive is entirely our fault;
What reason is there to blame it on others?

(6.46) Just as with the guardians of hell,
The forest of razor-sharp leaves, and so forth,
My sufferings in this life result from my actions –
So with whom should I be angry?

Generally we blame other people for the harm, any harm, we receive, directly or indirectly. We are convinced it’s always others’ fault. But any harm we receive we have to say is just karma ripening, our karma ripening. And we can either accept that happily or not.  It’s our choice. Some karma is ripening for us, bringing suffering upon us – we can either accept that happily or not. The second is usually the case.

We’re not prepared generally to happily accept our suffering. Even though we may recognize what is happening as a ripening of our karma, we still try to get some different karma ripening for us. How?  By changing conditions. If we change conditions, different karma will ripen, of course. There is nothing wrong with trying to do so, but when we are not successful, we must accept our suffering patiently.

Why do we experience any harm, mental or physical?  The harm we receive is entirely our fault.  When we receive harm we should identify this so that we stop blaming others.  What reason is there to blame it on others?  We can see this by considering the four different main karmic effects.

The harm we receive is a result of the ripened effect of karma. The ripened effect of our action is rebirth, rebirth in the human realm with contaminated aggregates – a body and mind that naturally give rise to suffering. Our present basis, our human body and mind, is the basis of all our human problems. It is the basis of all our suffering, mental and physical. Without such a basis, how could we be harmed? We could not be harmed by anyone or anything.  Whose fault is it that we have a body and mind that can be hurt so easily?  We are easily hurt mentally and physically. Why is it that we have a body and a mind that can be hurt so easily? We created the cause for such aggregates by engaging in deluded actions.

It is the result of our environmental effects.  If we live in a place where people are unfriendly or even hostile to us, like guardians of hell, it’s because we created the causes for such an environment.

It is the result of an effect similar to the cause.  We did similar things to others, and now it has simply come back to us.  When we harm others, we are actually harming ourselves in the future.  The harm we receive now comes from our past actions of having harmed somebody else – we are the future self of our past self.

It is the result of our tendencies similar to the cause.  Because we had tendencies similar to the cause, we created all of this karma and so the tendency is the deep cause of the other effects.  Also, when we are harmed now and we react negatively due to tendencies, this negative mind activates new negative karma which makes our situation worse because negative minds activate negative karma. 

How to overcome loneliness

Loneliness is a modern epidemic. COVID-19 has forced the world into isolation – closing centers of human bonding, trapping us in our homes, and leaving loved ones to die alone in hospitals.  While social media has in some ways made us more connected than ever, it has simultaneously left us feeling never more alone. The aftershock of the baby boom of the 1940s and 1950s is a gray tsunami of loneliness today. Our individualistic societies offer the promise of self-actualization, but they also erode all sense of solidarity and human connection. We live in an age of extreme loneliness, and humanity’s heart is aching.

Diagnosis matters.  If we don’t identify what exactly is the problem, we will waste our energy chasing after the wrong solutions.  Loneliness is not being alone.  Being alone is a physical state whereas loneliness is a mental feeling of isolation – a state of mind.  Being physically alone is neither a cause of suffering nor a cause of happiness.  In and of itself, it is neutral – indeed it is nothing.  Loneliness, in contrast, is a mental feeling or reaction to being alone.  It can arise – and often does – even when we are surrounded by others.  Loneliness is a form of deep inner suffering.  But it is perfectly possible to be alone without feeling lonely, indeed it is possible to be alone but feel inseparably one with all living things. In this post, I will try explain how.  I pray that all those who read this find relief from their inner sorrow.

The Suffering of Loneliness

Loneliness is a feeling of deep inner sadness and wanting. We feel as if everyone else is off with each other while we are left alone to suffer.  Merely seeing others together reminds us just how alone we are, and instead of being happy for them, we become jealous or depressed. We feel that we lack something we need – namely companionship or human support – and we can’t be happy without them.

Loneliness makes us feel helpless, burdened by problems we cannot overcome on our own. Life’s struggles are endless, and we are left to confront them on our own.  People who we think normally should be there to help us in our hour of need are too absorbed into their own lives to pay us any bother, much less offer a shoulder to cry on. Worse still, they become frustrated with all our tears and judge us for our pitiful state. We then can sometimes lash out at those around us in a misguided cry for help, only to find those closest to us avoiding our presence even more.  We feel like a failure because nobody wants to be our friend and our sadness is so heavy we struggle to even get out of bed. 

Loneliness robs us of any feeling of purpose in our life.  We wonder what is the point of even trying when we have nobody to enjoy things with and nobody really cares what happens to us?  Even when people do reach out to us or we are with others, it never feels enough to fill the seemingly bottomless void in our heart.  Lacking motivation, we feel ourselves sinking ever deeper into despair, worried we might not ever get back to feeling normal.

When we are plagued by loneliness, we can easily become trapped in feelings of self-pity. We exhaust our mental energy feeling sorry for ourselves and feeding our hopelessness that no matter what we do, it will never work.  We see no end in sight to our solitude and convince ourselves we will never make it through. The more lonely we feel, the more despondent we become when even the slightest thing that before we could have taken in stride occurs.  The more lonely we feel, the more tightly we grasp at ourselves as being separated from others. All of this then reinforces our feeling of loneliness in a vicious spiral.

Those who are lonely will often turn to negativity in an attempt to fit in with others.  This can take many forms, such as joining others in criticizing and indeed developing hatred for some other social group.  Or we can start to drink, take drugs, or “hook up” with others as a way of creating a feeling of belonging.  But in the process, we lose any sense self-respect and deep down we know such bonds with others are shallow and toxic to our soul.  Later, after we become addicted to these things, we will face the terrible choice between leaving our so-called “friends” or remaining incapable of escaping our life-destroying addictions or hatreds.

Loneliness often ends in death.  Researchers have found that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.  Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than the non-lonely.  More people die from deaths of despair – suicides or self-poisoning – than nearly any other cause of death.  But this can also take more subtle forms, such as those consumed by loneliness simply giving up trying to get better, leading to slow-motion decline.  Such pain is often invisible precisely because those experiencing it are either doing so away from others or inside their broken hearts.  Loneliness is even one of the primary causes of extremist violence, from terrorism to school shootings. From a Buddhist perspective, loneliness – or grasping at ourself as being separate from others – is actually the cause of all death because it is the very motor of samsara.

The Many Forms of Loneliness

Loneliness has many forms.  There is the loneliness of feeling unloved and abandoned.  Some children are neglected by their parents or made to feel no matter what they do, it is never good enough.  Middle school children the world over obsess over what others think about them and feel that nobody likes them, which for many is a fate worse than death.  In part due to social media and photo filters, millions are growing up today feeling un-“liked” and unattractive on their own.  Whereas before, people would get together with their friends, now we are all glued to our phones even when we are physically together. 

Teens and young adults now have the lowest rates of romantic relationships with others than any generation before them.  Marriage rates are falling, divorce rates are rising, lasting and deep relationships are fast becoming a thing of the past.  Because all of society tells us we are not good enough, we no longer feel good about ourselves, and without that we can never feel loved even if the whole world did love us.  Friends we used to have never call, and if they do reach out we rarely get more than a superficial text message or comment on our social media posts. 

There is also the feeling of loneliness in the face of our struggles.  Life is one endless series of difficulties.  Children with learning differences are made to feel dumb and nobody wants to be in groups with them.  Going off to college or leaving home for the first time feels as if we are thrown out into the world alone and unsure.  New parents are often shocked to find out just how isolating it can be to care for young children without adult companionship.  When financial difficulty strikes, no one is there to help.  When our parents become incapable of caring for themselves, we face the burden alone and, even when we have time to get away from such responsibilities, we have nothing to talk to others about besides our burdens which they don’t want to hear.  When our parents die, we feel truly on our own without anybody we can unconditionally fall back on. 

Many also suffer from the loneliness of physical isolation.  Social distancing related to COVID-19 has massively increased the amount of physical isolation in the world.  Some people find themselves alone because they have no friends, others find themselves alone sick in bed or in the hospital, incapable of doing anything except enduring their discomfort.  Our partners are sometimes called away from home due to work, leaving us alone looking after the kids and other family responsibilities on our own.  Sometimes we are alone because our partner leaves us for somebody else, and many old people return to an empty home after the death of their lifetime partner.

We can even feel alone while surrounded by others, such as going to a new school, beginning a new job, or being at a party where we don’t know anybody.  We can even feel alone when we are surrounded by people we know and who love us, but we cannot feel their love because of the want in our hearts. 

Getting old is a frequent source of loneliness.  We are no longer able to get out and do the things we enjoy and nobody wants to come see us because all we can do is sit in a chair or talk about the past.  And when death comes, we must face it alone. Our friends and relatives cannot help us. We all march to our death alone.

The Inner Causes of Loneliness

As discussed above, being alone is a physical state, but loneliness is a state of mind.  We might think the solution to loneliness is not being alone, but if we still have the mind of loneliness, we will feel just as alone no matter how many people we are with.  In Transform your Life, Geshe-la makes the distinction between out outer problem and our inner problem.  Our car breaking down is our outer problem, but our actual problem is our deluded mental reaction to this occurring.  We need a mechanic to fix our car, but we need to change our deluded way of responding to fix our mind.  If we solve our inner problem, outer situations will no longer be a problem for us.  Thus, the only real solution to our problems is doing the inner work necessary to change our mind.

This is equally true with loneliness.  When we understand our loneliness is an inner state of mind, we will realize the only solution to it is to change our mind.  Correctly diagnosing the problem is the essential first step to any treatment.  A failure to correctly diagnose the exact nature of our problem will mean we never actually find a solution.  We just continue to grasp forever at the wrong belief that because we are alone, we must suffer.  We might not be able to change the fact that we are alone, but we can definitely remove the feelings of loneliness from our mind.

From a Buddhist perspective, loneliness arises from a toxic brew of the ignorance of grasping at ourself as being somehow separate from others, a false belief that we need others to be happy, an obsessive concern thinking what we feel is supremely important, and a lack of self-confidence in our ability to transform our aloneness into something spiritually useful.  Let’s unpack this.

In Buddhism, we say the root of all of our suffering is our self-grasping ignorance.  What does that mean?  It means we think the self we normally see – our present body and mind – is actually us.  We think we are this and not that.  We impute our “I” onto this very narrow, isolated thing failing to realize that we are in fact inseparably one with everything.  In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says we are like a cell in the body of living beings.  We are inextricably linked in a web of kindness providing everything needed to support our life.  Ultimately, everything is a dream like creation of mind, so everything is equally part of our mind – part of us.  We currently feel as if there is this giant chasm separating us from everything else, but this feeling is an illusion, a mistaken perception.  In truth, all things share the same ultimate nature, like different waves on a single ocean.  When we realize the ultimate nature of things, there is no basis for feeling alone because all feeling of distance between ourselves and others simply vanishes.

Loneliness hurts because we have attachment to others, thinking we need them to be happy.  What precisely does this mean?  Attachment is a mental mistake that thinks our happiness depends upon some external condition.  We convince ourselves we can’t be happy without this external condition.  We don’t even want to call this belief into question, and reject anybody who tells us otherwise. We then dedicate all our energies to bringing about the external change we seek as a solution to our mental pain.  If we are unsuccessful, we feel we have no choice but to be miserable.  And even if we are successful in obtaining what we desire, it doesn’t actually ever satisfy our inner want because the problem is actually coming from inside.  As explained above, loneliness is a feeling of sadness and wanting.  Attachment is what creates the feeling of wanting – a feeling of needing, but not finding.  Specifically, loneliness is pervaded by an attachment to others.  We convince ourselves we need companionship, a partner, a lover, a friend, or a shoulder to cry on to be happy.  And without these things, it is impossible for us to be happy.  Sometimes we will have no prospect of ever being re-united with others – or at least not for a long time – and then fall into despair that there is no end in sight to our sorrows.  But all of this is completely wrong.  Just because we think it is true and we have always believed it is true doesn’t mean it is, in fact, true.  Being alone, in and of itself, is neither a cause of happiness nor a cause of suffering.  It is just a condition, a state of affairs.  It is our mental reaction to this state that is the real cause of our suffering.  Whether we are happy or not depends not upon our external circumstance, but upon the peace within our mind.  Inner peace is a dependent-related phenomena.  In other words, if we create the causes for inner peace, our mind will be peaceful, and we will be happy.  If we don’t create these causes, our mind will never become peaceful, and we will never be happy no matter what our external circumstance.  We must be clear about this otherwise we will never get better.

Loneliness hurts because of our attachment to others.  How much it hurts depends upon our degree of what in Buddhism we call “self-cherishing.”  Attachment is the mistake creating the feeling of loneliness, and our self-cherishing is like the volume knob that amplifies how much our loneliness hurts.  Self-cherishing is an exaggerated sense of importance of our own feelings and well-being.  When we feel bad, we think it is a very big deal.  Why?  Because we think our own happiness is supremely important.  In the grand scheme of things, we are just one person and what we feel really doesn’t matter that much.  Yet to us, it is of utmost concern.  Why?  Because we have been fooled since beginningless time by the inner demon of self-cherishing.  When others are unhappy, we don’t think it is that big of a deal because to us, their happiness doesn’t matter.  Self-cherishing causes us to be obsessively concerned with our own wishes, and so when they are not fulfilled, we simply cannot bear it. But if we reduce our exaggerated sense of how much our own well-being matters, we will proportionately reduce how much it hurts to feel lonely.  If how we feel doesn’t matter, then it won’t matter that we are lonely.  Yes, we are lonely.  So what?  What’s the big deal?  Every time we feel the hurt of loneliness, we should view this as a powerful reminder of the need to reduce our self-cherishing.

What makes loneliness particularly difficult to bear is the feeling of hopelessness that often accompanies it.  Where does this hopelessness come from?  It comes from our lack of self-confidence in our ability to transform our present circumstance into something spiritually useful.  We think the problem is bigger than us, and we tell ourselves, “I can’t handle this.  I won’t be able to make it.”  Such thoughts are not only self-defeating, they are simply wrong.  If we believe we can’t handle it, then when we try to heal our mind of its pain, we lack power and we wind up self-sabotaging our efforts.  We think it won’t work anyways, so we don’t ever really try, and as a result, we continue to suffering.  We then use the failure of have any results to confirm our initial belief that nothing will work anyways.  No matter what we do, we always judge our efforts as not being good enough.  We constantly find fault in what we didn’t do right instead of rejoice in our progress, however small it might be.  We would never talk to others the way we talk to ourselves, constantly criticizing ourselves as such a failure and finding fault with everything we do.  So why should we talk to ourself in this way?  Thinking we won’t be able to make it is simply incorrect.  Because we have a pure potential, there is nothing we can’t do.  With our Guru’s blessings, we can accomplish anything.  Because emptiness is possible, everything is possible.  If we never give up trying, our eventual success is guaranteed.  There is no valid reason to believe we “can’t” do it.  Sure, it may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it is impossibly so.  In truth, we are simply our own worst enemy.  But we don’t need to be.  We can also be our best ally. 

How to overcome loneliness.

Having clearly understood the suffering of loneliness, the different forms of loneliness, and the inner causes of loneliness, we can now turn to how to actually overcome our feelings of loneliness.  These explanations for how to overcome our loneliness will lack power if we don’t clearly and accurately understand what exactly is our problem.  But if we are clear on the problem, we will appreciate and be motivated to train ourselves in the solution.  I will present nine different practices for reducing and finally eliminating our inner pain of loneliness.  All of the Buddhas guarantee if we patiently train in these practices, we will find the inner peace and contentment that we seek.

Accepting patiently what we cannot change

Shantideva explains when we are confronted with some difficulty, there are two possibilities:  either we can change the situation or we can’t.  If we can change the situation, then change it.  If we can’t, then we must learn to patiently accept it.  We need to make a distinction between unpleasant feelings and suffering.  Unpleasant feelings arise in the mind when delusions are present or negative karma is ripening.  This only becomes “suffering” if we don’t mentally accept these unpleasant feelings.  As long as we are still trying to push them away, we will suffer from them.  If instead, we can learn to wholeheartedly welcome them, we create the space within our mind to suffer.  Yes, we are suffering.  OK.  And…?  If we can accept them, our unpleasant feelings cease to be a “problem” and as a result, we no longer suffer from them.

How can we accept unpleasant feelings?  There are two main ways.  First, we can accept them as purification of our past negative karma.  Since beginningless time, we have engaged in countless negative actions.  These actions have placed innumerable negative karmic potentialities on our mind which will, sooner or later, ripen if we do not purify them.  Once negative karma has ripened, not even Buddha can stop its effects.  The karma will have to run its course until it eventually exhausts itself.  When we mentally accept our unpleasant feelings as purification, it not only exhausts the presently activated negative karma, but we can purify all of the karma similar in nature to what is ripening.  We can think to ourselves, “through my patiently accepting my present difficulties, may I purify all of the negative karma of loneliness on my mind.”  Second, we can transform our suffering into an opportunity to train our mind in spiritual paths.  Shantideva explains suffering has many good qualities, but all of them are the opportunity suffering provides us to abandon our delusions and train in virtues.  Just as a beggar is not an obstacle to somebody wishing to practice giving, so too the arising of suffering or delusions in our mind is not an obstacle to somebody wishing to train their mind.  We feel bad, but it is not only not a problem, it is rocket fuel for our spiritual path.

Additionally, we can put our faith in Dorje Shugden.  Dorje Shugden is a specialized Buddha whose job it is to give us all of the outer and inner conditions we need for our swiftest possible enlightenment.  His job is not to fulfill all of our worldly wishes, but he can fulfill all of our pure spiritual wishes.  If what we want is an easy life, it will be impossible to accept that which we cannot change.  But if what we want is to make spiritual progress, then anything can be transformed into the path.  Dorje Shugden provides us with the wisdom blessings necessary to see how whatever arises is perfect for our spiritual training.  With regards to our being alone, we can request Dorje Shugden, “please arrange whatever is best.”  If our aloneness stops, then great; if it doesn’t, then we can know without a doubt that our being alone is exactly what we need to take the next step on our spiritual journey.

Learning to appreciate our alone time

All delusions function in the same way.  They mistakenly grasp at some mistaken notion (such as attachment or self-cherishing), then exaggerate that notion, relating to that exaggeration as if it were somehow true.  When it comes to loneliness, we mistakenly grasp at being alone as being inherently a bad thing, inherently a source of our suffering.  We convince ourselves we can’t be happy while alone.  We then exaggerate this wrong belief by dwelling on it again and again, convincing ourselves that it is true.  We think again and again, “I’m all alone, nobody is around to help,” and “I can’t enjoy anything while alone” or “it is so awful having to confront this on my own.”  Why are any of these things true?  They only become true if we believe them to be true. 

First of all, there are people around, we have just decided what we have is not good enough. Maybe we lack the physical presence of some people, but that does not mean we are actually alone.  And who says the people we do have around are not good enough?  Why is the support we have not good enough?  What specifically do we think we need from others?  What is wrong with doing things on our own?  Sure it is perhaps more fun to share a good movie or dinner with somebody, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the movie or dinner or walk on our own.  Why is it bad to have to solve our daily problems on our own?  Children resist learning how to sleep or walk on their own, but is there any denying they are better off for learning how to do so?  The same is true for our life challenges.  By learning how to work through our challenges on our own, we will grow in strength and confidence and will be able to take those qualities with us everywhere we go for the rest of our life.  Would we rather remain weak and dependent forever? 

Further, being alone has amazing good qualities.  We can do what we want – watch what we want, read books we never otherwise have time to read, and most importantly, engage in spiritual practices such as listening to, contemplating, or meditating on the Dharma.  Even from an ordinary perspective, getting away from others is often a huge relief because they are constantly placing so many unreasonable demands on us or otherwise act in such annoying ways.  How wonderful it would be to simply sit and relax, enjoying a little peace and quite from our otherwise hectic lives.  There are things that being alone enable us to do that we otherwise are never able to do.  So instead of looking at what we are missing, we need to appreciate the unique opportunities our aloneness affords us.

Abandoning attachment to others

As explained above, attachment to others is a mistaken belief that we need others to be happy.  It is true, we need to generate love and compassion for others to be happy, but we do not actually need to be with others to be happy.  We need to make a distinction between “nice to haves” and “necessities.”  Having companionship, somebody we can share our burdens with, or a shoulder to cry on are all nice to have, but we don’t actually need any of these things to be happy. 

Many people become fixated on having a partner, thinking they can’t be happy without one.  Or they become obsessed with having a baby, feeling their life has no meaning without one.  Some find a partner, but then feel lost and empty without them.  A very common form of attachment is needing others to help us carry our burdens or even just listen to us express the challenges we are going through.  None of these things are true.  They only become our lived experience because we think they are true.  With modern technology, such as social media, video calls, and the like, we are never really alone.  We might lack the physical presence of others, but besides being able to hold their hand or give them a hug, what difference does physical presence really make?  There are plenty of people who remain single their whole life or never have children and are perfectly happy.  Not having our partner around gives us a chance to stand on our own two feet and gain self-sufficiency and inner strength.  Being forced to solve our problems for ourselves enables us to grow and develop self-confidence. 

The hard truth is we were all born alone and we will all die alone. Even if they wanted to, others can’t solve our inner problems for us, only we can do that for ourselves.  Even if we had them around, they couldn’t really make any difference because the changes that need to be made are all internal.  Even the Buddhas can only show us the way, we have to travel the path ourselves.  Accepting our aloneness is in fact a huge part of growing up.  Some people go their whole lives without ever truly assuming responsibility for their own experience of life.  Do we want to remain forever like this?  Our aloneness gives us our unique chance to finally change.  Once we gain this inner strength, we can then become a source of wisdom, support, and emotional stability for others.  Our positive example will inspire others to develop their own emotional independence as well, protecting them from becoming trapped in abusive or co-dependent relationships.  The truth is most human problems would be solved if we could just abandon our attachment to others.

Cultivate a true self-confidence

As explained above, loneliness comes with hopelessness.  It makes us feel there is nothing we can do to change our plight.  But this is just wrong.  Most of all we just need to stop believing our self-defeating talk.

Geshe-la explains in How to Understand The Mind we need to develop three types of self-confidence:  confidence with respect to our potential, confidence in our actions, and confidence in thinking we can destroy our delusions.  

All of us have what is called our “pure potential” or our “Buddha nature.”  This potential is our true self.  It cannot be defiled nor destroyed, and once ripened, we too will enjoy the enlightened state.  Ripening this potential is simply a question of having the correct methods and persistent effort that never gives up, no matter how hard it gets.  Our pure potential is like the sky, and our present delusions are like clouds in the sky.  No matter how dark or violent the clouds, the sky always remains equally untouched.  Our loneliness is not us, it is just a cloud in our mind.  We can dissolve this cloud and feel the infinite expanse of the sky day and night.

Buddha said that eventually all living beings will attain full enlightenment, the only question is when we ourselves decide to start on the path.  The practical instructions he has given us for healing our mind are scientific methods for finding inner happiness.  Everyone who has sincerely and correctly put them into practice has discovered for themselves that they work.  Atisha explains the laws of karma are definite.  If we change our actions, we will change our experience.  This is guaranteed.  Just as there are laws of nature, so too there are laws of our mind; and if we learn how to work with them, we too will come to enjoy lasting inner peace. 

Finally, we need confidence that we can destroy our delusions.  Our delusions are not us, they are like mud in water, they are not an intrinsic part of our mind.  Our delusions are nothing more than bad habits of mind, and like all habits, with effort we can break them and create new, more healthy ones.  Great canyons are forged one drop of water at a time, and even iron blocks can be cut in two with a feather if we never give up trying.  If our delusions can be reduced – which we know they can – they can eventually be eliminated entirely. 

Abandoning self-cherishing

We often say, “I fell bad, I feel bad, I am not well,” but we never bother to ask ourselves, “why does that matter?”  As explained above, the extent of our self-cherishing is like a volume knob amplifying the hurt of our loneliness.  If we find ourselves experiencing unbearable pain, it is because we have out of control self-cherishing.  There is no other reason.  The more we reduce our self-cherishing, the less it will hurt.  It is as simple as that. 

How do we reduce our self-cherishing?  We have to see clearly that it is the root cause of all of our suffering.  There are two main ways of understanding this.  First, how we “feel” matters only because we think we matter.  Other than that, there is no reason.  The reality is the more we think it matters, the more intolerant we become to feeling anything bad, and this makes us hurt even more in a vicious spiral.  When our self-cherishing is strong, we cannot tolerate even the slightest thing going wrong.  Because our wishes matter “so much” we think everything that happens is a really big deal and we feel as if we are being violently buffeted by the waves of life. 

Second, all of our suffering comes from the ripening of our negative karma.  All of our negative karma comes from our past self-cherishing thinking we were more important than others.  Why do people currently neglect us?  Because we neglected others in the past.  Why are they currently frustrated with us while we suffer?  Because we were frustrated with others in the past when they were suffering.  Why do we feel so alone?  Because we abandoned others when they needed us most.  Why do we have to bear our burdens alone?  Because we failed to help others in their hour of need.  It is sometimes hard to admit to ourselves these karmic truths.  We feel like we are blaming ourselves, saying it is our own dumb fault that we are suffering now.  No, it is the fault of our past delusions, not us.  Delusions take over our mind and make it uncontrolled, and then compelled by them we engage in all sorts of negative actions.  We can feel like our present suffering is some sort of punishment that we deserve for being so bad, but this is just our guilt mistaking karmic gravity for divine punishment. 

Seeing how our present suffering is coming entirely from our self-cherishing, we can use our feelings of loneliness and abandonment as a powerful reminder that we must completely and utterly abandon our self-cherishing.  If we want to never go through this suffering again, we have no choice but to abandon our self-cherishing now.  Further, by abandoning it now, our unpleasant feelings will simply “not matter as much.”  Yes, we may feel bad, but we will think, “it doesn’t matter.”  This wisdom mind makes everything more tolerable.

Cherishing others

Geshe-la explains in Eight Steps to Happiness, “Cherishing others also protects us from the problems caused by desirous attachment. We often become strongly attached to another person who we feel will help us to overcome our loneliness by providing the comfort, security or excitement we crave. However, if we have a loving mind toward everyone, we do not feel lonely. Instead of clinging onto others to fulfill our desires we will want to help them fulfill their needs and wishes.” 

In truth, we are only alone if we are only thinking about ourselves.  If we are thinking about others, we are not alone.  They are with us in our thoughts.  If we are engaging in actions to cherish them, we feel close to them and never feel alone.  We can mentally imagine we are surrounded by all living beings and send them love and blessings.  If we have lost a loved one, we can remember that they have not disappeared, they are simply somewhere else.  We can still have a relationship with them, pray for them, and commit ourselves to becoming a Buddha for their sake.  Even doing simple things like writing letters or drawing pictures for others can make us feel close to others in our heart, and our feelings of loneliness go away. 

As long as we are looking to others to fill our empty voids, we will never overcome our feelings of loneliness even if we are surrounded by the whole world sending us love; but if we instead are working in our mind to cherish others and giving to others whatever it is we feel we need, we will feel ourselves being filled from within and will lack nothing.  As Saint Francis said:

O Divine Master, grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
And it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to Eternal Life

Abandoning self-grasping

As explained above, the root of samsara is our self-grasping ignorance – the mind that grasps at ourselves as being this small, limited body and mind somehow distinct from everything else.  This view is factually just wrong.  We can see there is not a thing about us that actually does not come from others, and there is nothing we do that does not affect all other living beings.  This feeling of separateness between ourselves and others is a completely false fabrication of our mind that, regrettably, we have believed without question since beginningless time. 

The ultimate nature of all things is emptiness.  What does that mean?  It means that everything is a dream like creation of mind, with no more reality than last night’s dream.  What does this mean for our loneliness?  First, it means all of our feelings of loneliness are actually coming from a mistaken conception of who we are.  A wave cannot exist without its underlying ocean.  We think we are a wave somehow existing independently of the ocean of our mind.  Second, it means it is actually impossible for us to be alone because everyone and everything is necessarily a part of our mind.  Every living being is inside our mind, inseparable from our mind, and part of our mind – so how could we possibly be alone?  Third, if we realize the emptiness of all things, we will feel the false chasms between us and all phenomena fall away and we will merge with all things like water mixing with water.  Being alone itself is impossible and the feeling of loneliness has no basis in ultimate truth.  Fourth, and perhaps more immediately, if everything is created by mental imputation, that includes thinking being “alone” is “bad.”  It is not inherently bad, we can mentally reconstruct it as “good” or even “pure.” 

Realizing emptiness of ourself and all other phenomena is the definitive antidote to all feelings of loneliness.  It may take a long time to realize emptiness, but every step we take towards its realization will reduce our underlying feelings of loneliness.

Remembering we are always in the Presence of all the Buddhas

Normally, when people say they are lonely, people will tell them, “you are not alone, you have this person and that person in your life, etc.”  But this sort of thinking is really just a band aid because the underlying assumption is being alone is still a “bad” thing.  So I intentionally did not put much emphasis above on “you are not alone” because I wanted to show a deeper solution.  It is better to stare aloneness straight in the eye and get to the point where it is no longer a problem, instead of just rush to fill our aloneness with somebody.

However, from a spiritual point of view, we are not alone and never have been.  All of the Buddhas attained enlightenment for the express purpose of being able to be with each and every living being every day, with the ability to bestow blessings directly on the minds of all those they love (which is everyone).  All around us there are countless Buddhas.  It is only our ignorance and lack of faith that fails to see them and feel their presence.  The sun is always shining, even if we can’t see it due to the clouds.  If we removed the clouds, the sun would naturally and spontaneously shine forth. 

A literally translation of a “Buddha” is an “inner being.”  It is a being that lives in the realm of mind.  From one point of view, all living beings share the same ultimate nature, like the ocean to the myriad of waves.  A Buddha is somebody who has realized directly they are the ocean, and so they are necessarily present in every wave.  Another way of thinking about it is we all share the same pure potential of omniscient bliss realizing the emptiness of all phenomena directly and simultaneously.  Imagine a universal hub that all living beings are connected to like spokes.  If you shine a light in the hub itself, it illuminates all of the spokes simultaneously.  This is a Buddha’s experience and how they are able to be with each and every living being every day, bestowing blessings directly on the minds of all.  They have found their way to the center, from where they can benefit all.  And all Buddhas have done the same, meaning all of the Buddhas are with us every moment every day.

When we realize this, we understand we are actually never alone.  All we need do is remember that all of the Buddhas, especially our Spiritual Guide, are with us and stand ready to bless our mind and help us along.  Unlike our ordinary friends, who cannot directly touch our mind, a Buddha can.  Buddhas blessings are like subtle infusions of their mind and realizations into our own.  When we generate faith and request their blessings, we will feel their love pour into us filling our mind with their eternal presence.

Go for refuge

Everything I describe above is not easy, but it is doable.  At present, the winds of our mind all blow in deluded directions and the wind is quite strong.  On our own, it is very hard to bring about the inner changes needed to reverse the current of our mind to flow in a better direction.  We need help.  Fortunately, we have help.

A foundational practice is “going for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”  What does that mean?  When our car breaks down, we go for refuge to a mechanic; when our tooth has a cavity, we go for refuge to a dentist.  In the same way, when our mind is plagued by the sickness of delusions, we go for refuge to the three precious jewels.  Practically speaking, what does this mean? 

It means we need to apply effort to request blessings from the Buddhas.  It was explained above that the Buddhas are always with us, but if we do not open the blinds of our mind, their sunlight cannot enter.  When we request their blessings, we open up our mind for their loving energy to enter into our hearts, giving us the wisdom and strength we need to overcome our loneliness by training in the practices above. 

It also means we need to apply effort to receiving help from the Sangha, or our pure spiritual friends.  There are Dharma centers all over the world and Facebook groups filled with people doing their best to put Buddha’s instructions into practice.  They know the struggles we are going through and have some experience they have gained from their prior practice.  They can share their experience with us and provide us with encouragement when we are feeling down.  But they cannot do the work for us – only we can do that for ourselves.

It finally means putting effort into practicing the Dharma.  Practicing Dharma means to apply effort to change the way we think to be slightly less deluded and slight more virtuous.  Drop by drop, the bucket is filled.  Step by step, the journey is made.  The practices described above will all work if we diligently train in them over a long period of time.  There are no quick fixes on the Buddhist path.  It takes work.  But the difference is our ordinary solutions to loneliness will never work no matter how long we try practice them.  The inner solution may take time, but its results are guaranteed.  And the reality is if we train sincerely, we will start to notice some results – we will feel slightly less lonely, or the loneliness we feel will be slightly more tolerable.  These early results will give us confidence that if we keep at it, eventually we will know permanent freedom. 

Conclusion

Loneliness is a terrible thing.  Millions around the world are experiencing great sorrow from it.  But fundamentally, it is just a state of mind.  If we change our mind, we can remove the debilitating feeling of loneliness, even if physically we remain alone for the rest of our life.  The practices described above are scientific methods that will work for whoever tries them.  What we do with this information, though, is up to us.  We have to decide to put in the effort to accept our situation and create new mental habits.  These sorts of inner changes will never happen on their own.  One day or another, perhaps after we have tried all other methods, we will come to accept if we want to feel better, we must do the inner work required.  There is no point blaming our being alone for our loneliness, the two have almost nothing to do with each other.  But if we correctly diagnose the problem in our mind and sincerely train in these more positive ways of thinking, I guarantee we will overcome all loneliness – not only now, but forever more.

I pray that all those who feel lonely find this post and that their minds are blessed to find something useful within it. I pray that all feelings of loneliness quickly cease and we all come to realize we are inseparably one in a web of kindness. May all beings feel the living presence of the Buddhas in their lives and turn towards them with faith. May everyone be filled with the courage necessary to embrace being alone as their opportunity to progress swiftly along the spiritual path.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: We don’t get mad at fire when it burns

We need to create an atmosphere around ourselves that invites people to offer suggestions on how we can do better, especially if we are in a position of responsibility.  If people feel like they can’t tell us when we are making mistakes, then they will sit with their faulty views like a cancer in their mind and eventually it will fester and grow.  Geshe-la said at a Spring Festival one year that Buddha Vajradhara is appearing in this world in an ordinary aspect because he wants us to act normally with him.  When we are with somebody and they are making a mistake, the normal thing to do is respectfully call it to their attention.  Geshe-la often said, ‘tell me if I am making a mistake.’  We need to do that with others, let them feel free to discuss with us how we can do better.  Then either we learn something or the other person learns something, but either way there is growth.  No open communication, no growth.  The key to this is a humility that accepts that we don’t know what we are doing or saying and so therefore we have a lot to learn from everybody. 

Now Shantideva turns to how to overcome the causes of anger

(6.39) If it were the very nature of a childish person
To inflict harm on others,
It would be no more reasonable to get angry with him
Than it would be to resent fire for burning us.

(6.40) On the other hand, if that harmfulness were a temporary fault
And that person were otherwise good-natured,
It would be just as unreasonable to get angry with him
As it would be to resent space for filling with smoke.

This is a very powerful logic:  There are two possibilities, either the person is by nature harmful or it is a temporary fault.  If it really is the nature of the person to harm, there is no point in getting angry. They are behaving exactly as what we would expect.  Fire burns.  That is its very nature.  We know that.  We accept that. There is no point in getting angry with fire for burning. What do we expect?  On the other hand, if it is not the nature of the person to harm, why then do we get angry with the person when we perceive harmfulness within them? They’re not by nature harmful. Harmfulness is not part of their essential nature, so why get angry with the person? 

(6.41) If someone were to harm us with a stick or other weapon,
We would normally become angry with the person;
But, since his intent is governed by anger,
It is really towards that anger that we should direct our wrath.

This is another classic analogy.  Why do we not get angry with the stick?  Because it is controlled by the person, it has no choice in the matter.  In the same way, we shouldn’t get angry with the person because they are controlled by their anger, they have no choice in the matter.  The conclusion is we should wish to destroy the other person’s anger.   

We naturally wish to be free from the causes of suffering and to free others from the causes of suffering.  But we have just been mistaken as to what are the real causes.  With this analysis, we can identify the causes of suffering are delusions, so they are what needs to be destroyed.  You can’t destroy delusion with delusion, only wisdom can do that.  We help others overcome their anger primarily through love, compassion, the practice of patience, setting a good example, requesting blessings for the other person, etc.  Geshe-la said love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all enemies.

My journey so far…

I have spent the last two days writing basically the story of my Dharma life, from my childhood through to today. A shorter version of this appeared before on my blog, but here I try tell the full story with all of the pivotal moments in my spiritual journey. It is long, but I hope you enjoy it and can learn from my many mistakes.

You can read it here: https://kadampaworkingdad.com/about-2/

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Free will wills freedom

We continue with the discussion of the patience of not retaliating.

We get angry at others because they fail to fulfill our wishes.  Our attachment then seeks to control others so that they act in the ways we want them to.  Hegel’s categorical imperative, interestingly, points to a Buddhist answer to this problem.  For him, the categorical moral imperative of living beings is “free will must will freedom,” in other words, we use whatever free will we have to will the freedom of others, which is quite similar to bodhichitta – we use our own liberation to liberate others.  Practically, though, this primarily means learning to let go of controlling others and to instead respect their freedom to make their own choices.

Sometimes, if we are in a position of responsibility, we may think that we have to control people to get things that need to get done done.  But there is a big difference between being responsible and being controlling.  If we are responsible and somebody is helping us out in some way, and we need them to do certain things, we can present to them choices that are reasonable.  For example, it is entirely appropriate for an employer to say certain responsibilities need to be carried out if the other person wants to remain an employee.  Since they know the consequences of their decisions, after we leave it up to them to decide.

In the context of relationships, we generally try to control the other person to do what we want them to do to fulfil our wishes.  But we need to make a distinction between helping people and having attachment that they change. We usually have a very good Dharma excuse why the other person needs to change their behavior so we feel justified in controlling them or manipulating them.  But in reality, we are trying to change them to conform with our needs and wishes, not theirs. A Dharma practitioner has no personal need that others change, including no need for them to practice Dharma.  It suits us just fine that other people are all screwed up.  We help people when they seek out our help, but we have no need to change them. We genuinely give people freedom without emotional penalty if they make choices that don’t correspond with our wishes.

Very often we will see people acting in strange of silly ways that we know are wrong.  Sometimes when somebody has a silly idea, Geshe-la will go along with it even though he knows it is a bad idea.  Why does he do this?  First of all, because he sees there is no real harm, and what is most important is that he maintain a very good relationship with the person.  Second, he gives the person a chance to learn from their mistakes.  Allowing the person to continue, later they will see that they have made a mistake and learn from it.  He has such a sense of responsibility for each and every individual that he gives us total freedom.  It seems like it should be the opposite, but because he wants us to grow, he gives us freedom.  We can only grow in freedom.  We still need to guide those who seek our advice, but we never control them.  They come to us for help, we guide them as to what THEY need to do for them.  Then we leave it up to them to decide what to do, and we accept them whatever their choice is. 

We also need to learn skillful means to help people realize their mistakes from their own side.  We need the skillful means to get people to think that the idea they now have was their own. When people come to a conclusion on their own, it is their conclusion, and then they never lose it.  When it is our conclusion that they follow, it doesn’t penetrate deeply enough into their mind.  When we disempower people by controlling them, we don’t give them a chance to learn to think for themselves and develop their own wisdom.  We think we are helping them by controlling them, but actually we are stifling them. 

One of the most important skills we need to learn is to just listen to others, fully and completely.  Even if we feel what they’re saying is wrong, our job is to listen. Listen to what they have to say. Listening is a training in and of itself.  We have to learn how to listen fully, and I think especially we must be able to listen to those who are turning to us for help.  Normally we think they need to listen to us, but it is actually the opposite.  We need to help people feel like we genuinely appreciate discussing things with them, and we benefit from the exchange of views.  The way we can do this is for it to be true, we genuinely do appreciate discussing things with them.  How can we develop such appreciation – just actually listen to them and their point of view? It depends upon humility and faith that they are emanations.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Forgive them, they know not what they do

(Several years ago, I started a blog series on my thoughts on how to apply the wisdom found in Shantideva’s Bodhisattva’s Way of Life to our modern lives.  In April 2019, I had to stop because – funnily enough – I became swept away by my own modern life, and since then haven’t had the time to properly keep up with this series.  You can find the previous 188 posts in this series here. However, for at least the next two years, I should be able to post regularly).

We continue with our discussion on the perfection of patience, a commentary on Chapter 6 of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. I am going verse by verse. When it says 6.35, for example, it refers to Chapter 6, verse 35 and so forth.

Over the next several posts, Shantideva will be discussing meditating on the patience of not retaliating.  People harm us all of the time, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.  We need to transform this experience into an opportunity to train in Dharma.  Then, even when people are harming us, we are able to receive lasting benefit.

The core of not retaliating is to have compassion for the person who is harming us.  For me, the best example of this is when Jesus was on the cross and he said, “forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”  When people harm us, they are driven by their delusions.  Delusions function to make our mind uncontrolled, so others are quite literally like puppets on the strings of their delusions.  They have somehow been led to believe that harming us (or somebody we love) is good for them, when in reality they are just creating negative karma for themselves.  They know not what they do.

(6.35) Some misguided people inflict harm upon themselves
By lying on thorns and the like;
While others, obsessed with finding a partner,
Deprive themselves of food.

(6.36) Then there are those who inflict harm on themselves
Through non-meritorious actions,
Such as hanging themselves, leaping from cliffs,
Swallowing poison, or eating bad food.

(6.37) Although they cherish themselves more than anything else,
If, under the influence of delusions, people are capable even of killing themselves,
Why should I be surprised when they inflict harm
On other living beings such as me?

(6.38) When those who, under the influence of delusions,
Set out to harm or even to kill me,
If I cannot develop compassion for them,
At the very least I should refrain from getting angry.

What people are doing to themselves out of ignorance and other delusions brings so much harm and suffering upon themselves. Since when they fall under the influence of delusion they harm themselves whom they cherish, then we can only expect that they will harm others too, such as ourselves.  It’s bad enough for them already. Why do we make matters worse by retaliating and becoming angry with them? At best we should have compassion for them since they are so lost and confused that they make their situation worse. 

We need to make the distinction between the person who is under the influence of their delusions and a person who is in control of themselves.  When we are under the influence of strong attachment or anger we do things without choice or control.  Even though we don’t want to be attached or angry, it comes nonetheless and we are not in control.  At other times, when we are calm and collected, we act differently.  When we do something nice for somebody, we never do so ‘uncontrolledly’.  This is the real us. The same is true with others.  When they harm us, they do so under the control of their delusions, but when they are nice with us, they do so from their own wishes.  The real person is the kind one. We should generate compassion for this kind person who gets hijacked by their delusions and engages in harmful actions without control.

We need to respect the freedom of others to do as they think is best for them.  If we check carefully, most of our frustration with others comes from them not acting in ways that correspond with our wishes.  For example, in a center there is a lot of work to do, and it is very easy for the people who have some degree of responsibility in the center to ‘want/expect’ others to help out.  Then, when they don’t, we get upset or frustrated and then there are problems in our relationship.  But if we check, it is our wish that they do something, not necessarily their wish. 

Sometimes it is not a case of them acting under the influence of delusion and harming us, rather it is an issue of us projecting the fulfillment of our wishes onto others and then feeling like they are harming us when they don’t fulfil them.  The solution to this is to provide people 100% freedom to do what they wish.  We can adopt as a life principle to give people freedom and to not control them.  We accept their choices, as just that – their choices.  It is our job to then adapt around their choices.  Yes, less things that we want to get done will get done, but this is only a problem for our mind of attachment. 

It’s not our responsibility to make others happy, nor our fault if they are not happy

Intellectually understanding the Bodhisattva path is relatively easy. Practicing it skillfully in our daily life is much harder. For me at least, nowhere is this more true than when it comes to understanding our personal responsibility towards others’ happiness and freedom from suffering.

Attaining enlightenment depends upon Bodhichitta, the wish to become a Buddha for the benefit of all. Bodhichitta depends upon great compassion, the wish to free all living beings from all of their suffering. Hinayanists develop universal love and great compassion, but what differentiates the Hinayana from the Mahayana path is the mind of “superior intention,” or the mind that assumes personal responsibility for the eventual enlightenment of others. As Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path, a bystander might wish a child not drown, but the child’s mother will dive in to save the child herself. As would-be bodhisattvas, it is not enough for us to merely wish others are free from all suffering, we must assume personal responsibility to make that happen. The entire Bodhisattva path is the practical expression of our superior intention. If we get superior intention wrong, then our entire bodhisattva path will likewise be wrong and unsustainable. But if we get superior intention correct, the rest of the bodhisattva path will be nearly effortless and always joyful.

Because we are still deluded beings, it is very easy to inadvertently develop all sorts of deluded interpretations of what it means to have “superior intention.” Personally, as a husband, father, and Dharma teacher, I have tumbled into quite a number of these deluded interpretations, and also led others down similar wrong paths. I am writing this to try hopefully spare others from making the same mistakes I have. There are three mistakes in particular I would like to highlight: viewing others’ suffering as our problem, misplaced responsibility arising from misdiagnosing what their problem is, and misplaced guilt causing us to push ourselves beyond our capacity.

Others’ suffering is ‘not my problem.’

Normally, when somebody says something like this, it is an incredibly heartless thing to say. It’s hard to think of a thought that seems more non-Buddhist! The entire point of the Buddhist path is to free others from their suffering. So how can we possibly look at others’ suffering and correctly think, “not my problem?”

We need to make a crystal clear distinction between great compassion and attachment to those we love not suffering. Great compassion is developed by first generating cherishing love for others – considering their happiness and well being to be important – and then contemplating all of the different ways that they suffer. Doing so naturally gives rise to a mind that “cannot bear” the suffering of others. Great compassion strongly wishes others were free from all of their suffering. Now let’s look at the mind of attachment to those we love not suffering. It too cannot bear the suffering of those we love and strongly wishes they were free from all of their suffering. Compassion is said to be a joyful, empowered mind; whereas attachment to those we love not suffering is a miserable, depressed mind. What exactly is the difference between the two?

The difference is attachment to those we love not suffering thinks others’ suffering is our problem whereas great compassion realizes clearly their suffering is not our problem. Attachment means to think our happiness depends upon some external thing, in this case others’ happiness. If we are attached to others being happy, then when they are not happy, we become unhappy. When they suffer, we go down with them.

But to say their suffering is not our problem sounds like we don’t care. Quite the opposite, actually. It is because we care and want to be of use to them that we cannot allow ourselves to become mentally attached to their well-being. Think of doctors trying to help their patients in the age of the Coronavirus or parents trying to raise their kids in a world of suffering. We are in the midst of an ocean of suffering, and if we do not free our mind from our attachment to others being happy, we will simply drown with the rest of them. Many doctors wind up committing suicide when confronted with the wave of suffering and their inability to stop it; many parents fall into depression as they powerlessly watch their kids make one wrong choice after another.

Our actual “problem” when we see others suffering is our deluded attachment to them not suffering. Paradoxically, we need to create the space within our mind for those we love to suffer to actually be able to help guide them out of their suffering. The mind of patient acceptance is a pre-requisite for developing the mind of renunciation. We need to accept that samsara is the nature of suffering and always will be. We need to give up hope of ever “fixing” samsara before we can once and for all make the decision to leave it behind. If we still think happiness can be found in samsara, we will invest our energies into securing a better position within it, rather than waking up from it. Thinking happiness can be found within samsara is a “non-acceptance” of samara’s true nature. By fully accepting samsara for what it is, we create the space in our mind for samsara to be – for ourselves to experience suffering. Once we accept suffering, we can begin to transform it into the path and use it for spiritual purposes. Then, unpleasant experiences cease to be a “problem” for us.

In exactly the same way, we need to accept as long as others remain in samsara, they too will suffer – sometimes terribly. Just as acceptance of our own suffering is the foundation of renunciation, so too acceptance of others’ suffering is the foundation of great compassion. We need to create the space in our mind for others to suffer. When we free our mind of attachment to others not suffering, we ourselves no longer have a “problem” with them suffering. This doesn’t mean we don’t care, rather it frees us up to actually be able to help because we are not preoccupied about our own welfare in the face of their suffering. Their suffering “is our great concern, but not our problem.”

Others’ suffering is ‘not our responsibility’ either

This is a tough one for parents. But also for someone in a couple, for anyone in a position of responsibility for others, and for Dharma teachers. When we see our kids suffer, like the mother in Geshe-la’s example for superior intention, we naturally want to dive in and save our child – often from themselves. Our children also expect this of us. They believe it is our responsibility to solve their problems for them – and why wouldn’t they think that, we have been doing so for their entire lives.

Just as great compassion and attachment to those we love not suffering are easily confused, so too are superior intention and feelings of misplaced responsibility towards others. Superior intention is the mind that takes personal responsibility for the welfare and eventual enlightenment of others. Misplaced responsibility – thinking it is our job to solve other people’s problems for them – also has a sense of personal responsibility in the face of others’ suffering. On the surface, they are very similar. Superior intention is the powerful mind of a bodhisattva, whereas misplaced responsibility is the heavy mind of a confused caregiver.

To differentiate clearly superior intention from misplaced responsibility we need to realize two key distinctions. First, conventionally speaking we can’t solve others’ problems for them, they need to resolve their own problems for themselves. Buddhas cannot bestow enlightenment upon us, they can only guide us on what we ourselves need to do to attain enlightenment. We can influence the external conditions around others, but only they can control their own mind. It is our responsibility to do what we can to help, but it is their responsibility to control their own mind. We can’t do that for them.

When others think it is our responsibility to solve their problems for them, it disempowers them to solve their own problems. So we need to be very clear in handing over responsibility to others for their own well-being, while being mindful of their capacity to assume responsibility for themselves. Eventually, we want to lead everyone into assuming personal responsibility for all living beings, but this begins with them assuming personal responsibility for themselves. In the beginning, a lot of the responsibility will fall on us because they are not yet capable of assuming responsibility for themselves, but the direction of our relationship should be to equip them with the skills and opportunities to be able to care for themselves. This will almost invariably create all sorts of conflict in our relationship with those we normally care for as they expect us to solve their problems for them and might resist us giving that responsibility back to them. At such times, we should clarify that our intention is to help them more by teaching them and giving them the opportunities to help themselves. It’s no different than a child learning to walk on their own – we should celebrate each transition of responsibility in the same way.

The second key distinction is correctly identifying what their problem is. If our mind is still pervaded by ignorance, we might think the reason why they are unhappy has something to do with their external circumstance, and so if they are to be happy, their external circumstance must change. Likewise, if their mind is still pervaded by ignorance, they will think it is their external circumstance that needs to change for them to be happy. But if their mind remains the same, they will be equally unhappy in their new circumstance as their old one, so nothing will really change. We need to be repeatedly clear with them that whether they are happy or not in a situation depends upon their own mind, not their external circumstance. Their problem is their delusions. They have no problem other than their delusions. This does not mean we don’t make external improvements where possible, but it does mean what really needs to change is their mind. It also means we are not responsible for how their mind reacts to things. Even if they insist it is their external circumstance that needs to change and we may be the only one who can change their external circumstance, we need wisdom knowing this won’t work and the only way they can be happy is if they change their own mind – which only they can do. If we assume it is our responsibility to change their mind, then once again, we disempower them to find their own happiness and we transform ourselves into something they need to emotionally manipulate to get us to do something so that they can change their mind. Endless misery for all.

It’s not our fault if they are unhappy

A close cousin of misplaced responsibility is misplaced guilt. We think it is our fault if others are unhappy. We think it is our fault if they suffer. We think it is our fault if they are deluded. We then blame ourselves whenever they suffer, and then this guilt drives us to do more for them. It can almost seem like our guilt is virtuous because it is propelling us to engage in virtuous actions for others. But this is wrong. Virtuous actions depend upon our intention, and guilt is delusion of self-hatred, not a virtuous intention of cherishing others. Motivated by guilt, we help others to avoid beating ourselves up (which hurts), not out of any caring for others.

When we are driven by guilt, we tend to push ourselves way beyond our capacity to help, and this then leads to burnout of ourselves and even greater dependency of others upon us to be happy. In other words, we destroy our own capacity to help others by burning out and we actually harm others by reinforcing their wrong belief that they cannot be happy unless we do something for them. We think we are being the kind bodhisattva, cherishing others no matter the cost to ourselves, but actually we are allowing our guilt to destroy ourselves. What makes this particularly hard is others are convinced it is up to us to solve their problems for them, and they will tap into our guilt to emotionally manipulate us into doing something for them to be happy. This can even reach the point where others threaten self-harm or even suicide if we don’t step up. Because of our misplaced responsibility and misplaced guilt, we then give in to their manipulations – or even actively participate in them – and just cause the cycle of suffering to continue further.

We need wisdom in such situations. If others are unhappy, it is the product of their karma and their own delusions, neither of which are our fault. They are responsible for their own karma and their own delusions. We cannot manage their karma for them and we cannot manage their delusions for them. Only they can do it for themselves. We also need to be aware of our current capacity. If we push ourselves so hard that we burn out, then we are useless to others and can help them less in the long-run. We need to be very targeted in what help we provide to make sure it is help that will actually make a difference knowing they are responsible for their own karma and mental reactions. Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is “not help.” Sometimes the wisest thing to do is to say no. But we need to do so without guilt. Wisdom is the antidote to misplaced guilt.

Don’t be like me

In my own life, I have made these three mistakes many times, and they have been the source of almost all of the suffering I have experienced by being a husband, a father, and a Dharma teacher. I have also, ignorantly, wound up transmitting these same mistaken trains of thought onto others, inadvertently causing them to generate attachment to others’ not suffering, developing misplaced responsibility, and pushing themselves to burnout out of misplaced guilt.

The first step to recovery is recognizing how I have been making these mistakes. Then, it is an issue of reminding myself again and again of the wisdom that counters the mistakes. Largely, it is an issue of training myself in new habits of how I relate to others, and accepting the relationship tensions that will naturally arise as I change my ways. In the short run, it may lead to more conflict with others, but in the long-run it will lead to more healthy and sustainable relationships with others. It will also enable us to enjoy our bodhisattva path instead of feel this enormous heavy pressure we put on ourselves to solve everyone’s problems for them in ignorant ways, or the emotional strain of fearing emotional blackmail from others if we don’t conform to their wishes.

In writing all of this, I hope others can learn from my mistakes and thereby be of much greater benefit to others, not only now, but for lifetimes to come. We need superior intention, but it needs to be informed by wisdom.