Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Accepting suffering is the foundation of renunciation

After his introduction to patient acceptance, Shantideva goes on to describe the three types of patience in which we should train.  There are three kinds of situation in which we need to learn to be patient.  One is when we are experiencing suffering, at which time we should practice the patience of voluntarily accepting suffering.  Another is when we are practicing Dharma, at which time we should practice the patience of definitely thinking about Dharma.  Third is when we are harmed or criticized by others, we should practice the patience of not retaliating.

The first type of patience we need to train in is the patience of voluntarily accepting suffering:

(6.12) In samsara, the causes of happiness rarely occur,
Whereas the causes of suffering are innumerable.
Without suffering, there would be no renunciation;
Therefore, mind, you should remain firm.

This is how it is. We have to accept this.  “In samsara, the causes of happiness rarely occur, whereas the causes of suffering are innumerable.”  We cannot change that. That’s what we have to accept within samsara.  As explained in the previous post, the teachings on the nature of samsara are essentially a giant exercise in expectations management.  We get angry because we expect things to go differently.  When we let go of that expectations, we cease getting angry.

Recognizing samsara is the nature of suffering is the basis for developing renunciation.  It can only dawn within the clear and open mind of patient acceptance.  If we cannot accept the nature of samsara, we cannot develop renunciation.  If we cannot accept suffering whilst in samsara, we cannot accept that samsara is in the very nature of suffering.  For as long as we’re in samsara we will continue to experience suffering; if we cannot accept any of this, then we will not be able to develop renunciation.  This is a very important point.

Without renunciation we will never find the freedom we seek.  Without renunciation our suffering will never come to an end.  The end of our suffering depends upon renunciation, which in turn depends upon acceptance of how things are within samsara. We still don’t accept, which is why still we have no renunciation. We haven’t developed authentic renunciation because there is a lack of acceptance in our mind.

In Transform Your Life, Geshe-la says, “patience allows us to see clearly the mental habit patterns that keep us locked in samsara, and thereby enables us to begin to undo them.”  Change leading to the attainment of a pure mind and pure body takes place in dependence upon possessing a mind of acceptance.  Or we can say such change can’t take place if there is no mind of acceptance. Then we remain a samsaric being.  We remain a samsaric being for as long as there is no such acceptance in our mind. Change, improvement, depends very much on possessing patient acceptance.

There is still much rejection in our mind we need to look at. We ought to look at that rejection.  We still reject that negative actions and self-cherishing are the causes of all our suffering. We still reject that samsara is the nature of suffering, that happiness can’t be found in samsara. We still reject that there are no external enemies or causes of our problems. We still reject our experiences of suffering.  As long as there is a non-acceptance of the way things are, it will be impossible for change to take place and for us to get better.

(6.13) If some ascetics and the people of Karnapa
Can endure the pain of burns and cuts for no great purpose,
Why can I not endure hardships
For the sake of liberating everyone from their suffering?

We cannot tolerate unpleasant, painful things. Why not?  If we look there’s no good reason.  When we do experience pain, what happens? We identify with that pain.  We think ‘I am in pain.’   Then we naturally exaggerate those painful feelings, don’t we? We are in real pain. I am in pain. I am really suffering.  We are like children, always exaggerating whatever pain we experience.

If we are to make progress along the path, we must be willing to endure hardships, knowing that by doing so we are drawing closer to being able to liberate everyone else from their suffering.   When we have a good reason for experiencing pain, we can accept it.  We gladly accept a needle poked into our skin if we know it contains life-saving medicine.  When we know that accepting and working through our suffering is bringing us to enlightenment, which will free all living beings, we will gladly accept it because it has so much meaning.  A former student of mine has severe anxiety and psychotic tendencies.  But his faith in Dorje Shugden is even greater.  He views his situation as Dorje Shugden preparing him to be a Buddha in extremely degenerate times.  He is being given extremely degenerate minds now so he can learn how to practice and transform such a situation, thereby giving him the realizations beings of degenerate times will need.  This is perfect.  As Shantideva says, “why can I not endure hardships for the sake of liberating living beings from suffering?”  It’s a good question, why not?

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  What do you expect?

(6.11) People do not want suffering, criticism,
Harsh words, or anything unpleasant
For themselves or for their friends;
But for their enemies it is the opposite!

Bad things are happening to everybody all of the time.  When bad things happen to those we love, we become angry; when bad things happen to those we dislike, we become happy.  Both reactions are completely wrong.  The first reaction is wrong because getting angry just makes things worse and does nothing to solve the problem.  The second reaction is wrong because rejoicing in the suffering of others creates the karmic causes for ourselves to experience the same suffering in the future.  The correct reaction in both cases is to develop compassion.  We cannot develop compassion for our enemies unless we love them, so our first task is to learn to love everyone.

Sometimes people hear the teachings on how samsara is the nature of suffering and they develop all sorts of wrong understandings.  Some people become very depressed, viewing everything as somehow inherently the nature of suffering and there is nothing we can do about it other than be miserable.  Others wrongly think that it is somehow wrong to be happy since everything is the nature of suffering, instead we should be miserable and grim.  They transform the Joyful Path into the Eeyore Path.  These views are also completely wrong.  Instead, we need to lower our expectations to zero.

If we check, our suffering largely arises out of the gap between our expectations and reality.  We expect things to go well, and when they don’t we become unhappy.  If instead we expect nothing from anybody or anything, and we expect things to always go wrong (but be at peace with that possibility), then if things go wrong we are not unhappy because we didn’t expect anything different.  If things go better than terrible, we are then pleasantly surprised that things turned out better than we expected.  Seen in this way, the teachings on renunciation are, in fact, a giant exercise in expectations management.

The key here is to be able to be at peace with the possibility that everything will always go wrong.  What enables us to be at peace with this possibility?  We know how to “accept” things going wrong as perfect for our spiritual progress.  In other words, we know how to use our suffering.  Since what we want is to make spiritual progress and our suffering helps us to do that, it is no longer a problem for us.  We can “accept it.”  In Transform Your Life, Geshe-la describes patient acceptance as “welcoming wholeheartedly whatever arises, having given up the idea that things should be other than what they are.”  In other words we must try to accept fully the situation as it is. Try to accept fully the person as they are. The situation is just how it is. This person is how they are, that’s how they are.

Again we’ll find resistance, thinking, “it’s just not right that the situation is like this, the person is like this.” What’s not right?  What’s actually wrong?  We’re in samsara.  It’s perfectly right and normal for samsara. That’s what things are like in samsara, that’s how people behave.  What do we expect within samsara? Everything to be right?  What’s actually wrong is our mind, because if we put our mind right, everything else will be too. Nothing goes wrong in Geshe-la’s mind, because Geshe-la’s out of samsara.

If we check closely, if we feel that there’s something wrong, it’s an indication that there’s something wrong in our mind.  What are we actually becoming unhappy about?  The problem actually, as Geshe-la has told us so many times, the problem is in our mind.  If we feel that there’s not a problem, with a person, a situation, with the way they’re behaving, then we won’t become unhappy.  We become angry when we’re not accepting the situation for what it is, we’re not accepting the person for what they’re doing.

What would the correct approach be to someone whom we know to be engaging in harmful action, for example?  What we tend to feel is if we are fully accepting of the situation as it is, the person and how they’re behaving, we’ve gone to an extreme.  Are we simply to let be, or not? To let be. This is how it is. This is what they’re like. This is what they’re saying, this is what they’re doing.  Complete acceptance.  Of course we won’t become unhappy; we’ll have a very, very peaceful mind.  Have we gone to an extreme?  What happens when something appears to be wrong, what do we do? We go straight in, make changes straightaway. What is the middle way?  The answer is found in the previous verse:  if we can do something about it, do it; if we can’t, accept it.

 

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.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Stopping anger early

(6.8) Therefore, I should never allow this fuel of mental unhappiness
That causes anger to grow within my mind,
For this enemy of anger has no function
Other than to harm me.

(6.9) I will not allow anything that happens to me
To disturb my mental peace.
If I become unhappy, I shall be unable to fulfil my spiritual wishes
And my practice of virtue will decline.

In Joyful Path, Geshe-la explains the stages by which delusions develop.  In the case of anger, first we view an external object as being unpleasant and we conceive of it as being a cause of our suffering, then we exaggerate its bad qualities through inappropriate attention, and finally we assent to this exaggeration as if it were actually true.  Geshe-la explains that it is very hard to counter a delusion once they are in full force, but that it is much easier to do so early in its development.  We can think of delusion as like a wildfire.  Viewing an external object as being unpleasant is like the spark, inappropriate attention is like fanning the flames with the wind, and assenting to the exaggeration is allowing the flames to spread in our mind.

The most effective way to stop anger is to prevent it from ever arising in our mind in the first place by stopping the delusion at this first stage.  Ultimately, we do this through a realization of emptiness, understanding how nothing exists from its own side so nothing is actually inherently an unpleasant object.  From a Tantric perspective, we can view everything as a manifestation of the bliss and emptiness of our own mind.  All things are equally pure to a pure mind, therefore there is no basis for anger to arise.  But such a realization is perhaps a long ways off.  What can we do now?

For me, faith in Dorje Shugden accomplishes the same practical function as a realization of emptiness.  I have requested Dorje Shugden (and continue to request him every day) that he arrange everything so that it is “perfect” for my swiftest possible enlightenment.  I have offered to him all of my karma and requested him to manage its ripening for me.  In our Dorje Shugden prayers we say, “all the attainments I desire arise from merely remembering you.”  By simply remembering Dorje Shugden with faith, this “unpleasant object” is transformed mentally into “perfect for my practice.”  If it is perfect, it is no longer a cause of my suffering, rather it is a cause of enlightenment.  If it is perfect, I do not wish it to be any different, and therefore there is no basis for anger to arise in my mind.

We can stop delusions at the second stage by stopping all inappropriate attention.  Inappropriate attention has two parts, the first is we focus on the wrong things and second we exaggerate.  For example, we live in a human realm where virtually all of our conditions are outstanding.  We have ample food, shelter, resources, the environment is relatively clean, we largely live in peace free from war, we live in free countries with stable (though often ineffective) governments.  By and large, compared with the overwhelming majority of living beings in samsara, our external conditions are outstanding.  But if we focus 99% of our attention on the 1% of the problem, it will feel to us as if 99% of our experience is problematic.  This is simply not an objective assessment of our situation.  Restoring balance to our attention, in other words, “seeing the good,” can help us see our suffering in perspective.  Yeah, things are not perfect, but they are pretty darn good in the big picture of things.

We likewise need to be very mindful not to exaggerate how bad things are.  Have you noticed that the more you tell a particular story of your suffering, the more the story grows with each telling?  Maybe we don’t even notice, but very often we will overstate what happened and leave out mitigating factors.  When we dwell on things within our mind, we feed our anger and amplify he harm.  We then feel so hurt, and once again renew our blaming of something outside of ourselves when in reality our exaggeration is us harming ourselves far more than the other person harmed us.  Inappropriate attention of everything that is wrong gradually crowds out our ability to see anything good until eventually everything we see is yet another cause of our suffering and we feel trapped, suffocated by the crushing weight of an impure world.  While our body may be in a human realm, our mind will have sunk down into a lower realm.

There is a very close relationship between our mind and our body.  Persistent inappropriate attention harms our mind so much that it can also eventually harm our brain and its chemical balance, throwing us into what can sometimes be prolonged bouts of deep depression.  Having witnessed seasonal depression of my mother growing up and a profound depression of somebody close to me, I can say without a doubt it is a horrible thing to go through.  Not only is one’s mind pervaded by darkness, one loses all confidence in one’s ability to dig oneself out of it.  The feeling, quite simply, is “everything is bad, and I am unable to get out of it.”  Those who have some experience of Dharma then compound their depression with guilt.  They know it is just their mind and their karma, but they can’t stop it, so they feel guilty and like a failure.  It is hell.  It is true some people are born with a genetic predisposition to become depressed, and so falling into depression is easier; but in all cases the path that leads to depression is always the same:  inappropriate attention.  If we want to avoid this mental hell, we must stop it in its earliest stages of development by developing appropriate attention.  If we don’t, the mental pit we fall into can take months or even years to get out of.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Understanding the cause of anger

(6.6) Although the enemy of anger
Creates sufferings such as these,
Whoever works hard to overcome it
Will find only happiness in this and future lives.

It is said that after the era of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings come to a close, the world will enter into what is known as the “age of weapons.”  During this time, the minds of living beings are so filled with anger that they develop a special “wisdom” which enables them to see how every object can be used as a weapon to harm others.  It is important to note, the transition from one age to another is not a night and day sort of transition, but rather a gradual transition where parts of the world enter this age before others.  I believe we are already seeing the beginnings of this age.  If we look to wars like Syria or Bosnia before that, if we look to terrorism leaving the battlefields of the Middle East and entering into our discotheques, if we look at the increasing violence between police and minority communities in the United States, if we look at the vitriol thrown around casually in on-line discussion forums and our politics, we can see the beginnings of the age of weapons already taking place.  Observing these things can sometimes lead to great despair.

But the truth is this:  the whole world is created by our own mind, and as long as we can keep the minds of love and patience manifest within our mind, the longer we hold back the tide of anger in our world.  In a world that is drowning, some people need to strive to swim to the surface.  If we never give up our practice of patience, we will, one day, overcome our anger.  Anger is not an intrinsic part of us, rather it is just a bad habit of mind.  Like all habits, they can be broken.  Venerable Tharchin said for every step we take towards enlightenment, we bring all living beings with us in proportion to their karmic relationship with us.  Overcoming our own anger is not just an issue of survival of our own mind, but rather it is the very means by which we can prevent this world from sinking into the abyss.  When my wife taught primary school, she had a banner in her classroom that said, “peace beings with you.”  More deeply, peace begins with cultivating the mind of patience.

(6.7) Through having to do what I do not want to do
Or being prevented from doing what I want to do,
I develop mental unhappiness, which becomes the fuel
That causes anger to grow and destroy me.

Why do we become angry?  All of our actions are in fact motivated by our basic wish to be happy all the time and be free from all suffering.  We become angry because we mistakenly think the cause of our suffering is something external, so the mind of anger seeks to destroy this cause.  It looks like it works. We become angry and change takes place. Where there was a problem, we feel that through an action motivated by anger, the problem goes.  It looks like we’ve destroyed the cause of our problem.  But we are not understanding that anger itself is a cause of our problem.  Anger itself is a cause of our suffering.  Because if we were to remove anger from our mind, we would experience freedom.  It’s what we want – freedom from our problem, freedom from suffering.  Take anger out of our mind, that’s the result.

Quite simply, anger develops in two stages:  Things don’t go the way we want them to go, and then we develop mental unhappiness.  Essentially things don’t live up to our expectations of how things “should” be or how we want them to go.  Because we think our happiness depends on things going that way, when they do not, we become unhappy.  We then look for something to blame for this mental unhappiness so we can end it.  We look at our external situation and think that it is the problem, so we seek to destroy whatever we consider to be causing our mental unhappiness with the wish that it goes away.  This is anger.  It is not that this process occurs as some rational calculation, but these are the internal steps that happen.

We can look at this from the perspective of substantial and circumstantial causes of our anger.  The circumstantial causes are undeniably the way the situation is going externally.  But the substantial cause of the problem is our expectation and attachment to things going differently.  The problem is not how things go, rather our mental expectation/attachment that they go differently.  When this attachment is thwarted we become unhappy.

Understanding this, there are two ways to overcome anger.  First, try manipulate and control all possible circumstantial conditions so that nothing ever happens that we don’t want.  The problem is the more fixed we become on having things go a particular way, the more angry we get and this is impossible.  Second, change our own mind.  This has two parts:  First, set our expectations at absolute zero for everyone and everything samsaric.  Expect things to go wrong, then if it goes anything better than completely wrong we are happy.  If we didn’t have this expectation/attachment then we wouldn’t become unhappy and there would be no basis for anger to develop.  Second, change what we want.  If the only thing we want from a situation is an opportunity to work on our mind and grow spiritually, then every situation will be perfect for us.  We will be happy with everything.  How can we change what we want?  Through a systematic practice of Lamrim.  The main function of Lamrim is to change what we want from worldly wishes to spiritual ones.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  There is no one who can live happily with anger

(6.5) Anger causes friends and relatives to grow weary of me
And, even if I try to attract them with generosity, they will not trust me.
In short, there is no one
Who can live happily with anger.

If we are honest, the primary emotion we show towards others is frustration.  When we communicate to others that they frustrate us it makes them think they are a bad person, and so they start to identify with that and it brings out that very behavior.  It also just makes them feel very bad.  When somebody gets angry with us, we dwell with it for a very long time and we feel really bad about it.  For the most part, people need to feel like they are loved and supported for them to have confidence to go out and grow.  When we get angry with somebody, we betray that love.  It is like emotionally raping them.  Sometimes when our parents or someone we deeply respect becomes angry with us, it can scar us for life.  Our trust and confidence are violated and it takes an enormous amount to earn it back.  The same is true of others who are the victims of our anger.

When we are young, we have a certain ability to absorb and bounce back relatively easy, but over time we store up so much anger that our tank fills up and then we become an angry and bitter person or depressed.  We don’t know where the tipping point is for somebody, but it could very well be that our next bout of anger is the one that fills it up and pushes them over the brink.  This is why it is so important to apologize often every time we get angry because this helps those we got angry with let go of their hurt and their own anger.  We really need to take this seriously, it is so important.

Nobody wants to be with angry people.  We just don’t want to be around them, and so it is no surprise that over time angry people find themselves all alone.  It is inevitable that this will happen as long as we are angry.  Sometimes people feel trapped with angry people and they don’t know how to get out.  This causes them to generate a lot of resentment towards the other person and they sit internally with their anger, day by day creating countless causes to fall into the lower realms.  Usually what happens is once the power balance shifts in the relationship, such as the angry person becomes the weaker one in some way, then all this anger and resentment comes out creating incredible misery for the angry person and terrible causes for the person who lets it all out.

As bodhisattvas, we need strive to maintain good and harmonious relationships with everybody.  It is through our relationships that we can help people.  Somebody can be a Buddha, and have incredibly precious advice to give, but if they don’t have the karma of having good relationships they can’t do anything to help.  We need to try to get on good terms with everybody.  It doesn’t take much effort to do so, we just need to try and be willing to apologize for our mistakes.  We need to start viewing others as our future spiritual responsibility, and start to cultivate our relationship in that direction right now.  The most important thing we need to do is overcome our anger with them.

Especially for people who are teachers or Sangha, there is nothing more devastating to our fellow practitioners than them thinking we are angry with them or do not accept them or that they bother us.  This destroys everything about their spiritual life, and prevents them from being able to trust us.  If they do not trust us, there is nothing we can do help them.  Even if we’re controlled enough not to say or do anything out of anger, our students or the other people in the Sangha may sense the impatience, irritation or anger we have in our mind towards them.  When they become aware of it they will not trust us and sometimes not trust the Dharma as a result.  They will judge the Dharma as being faulty when in reality it is us who is faulty.  How can we expect our students and fellow Sangha to develop open hearts towards us, to rely upon us, to draw close to us, if we become angry with them?

What will happen is they will keep some distance from us, and their mind will be closed. They will not be open to receiving whatever good things we have to offer, even during teachings.  If their mind is closed as a result of experiencing our anger towards them, they will not fully take the teachings  to heart, just a memory of a time we became angry or impatient with them.  We know, if we’re honest, we know that we have become impatient with our students or fellow Sangha, we have become angry with our students and fellow Sangha. We have to stop, because what is most important is our improving our relationships with our students and spiritual friends.  When we become impatient or angry with them our relationship is damaged. To that extent we are responsible for hindering spiritual progress and creating divisions within the Sangha.

Sometimes we feel we’re being wrathful: something needs to be said in a strong way. We think, “I need to be wrathful with this person.”  But we need to check very, very closely in our mind, to see if there’s this enemy, poison of anger, still influencing our thoughts.  Even if our mind is at peace, those we are wrathful with may still perceive us as getting angry. Our relationship needs to be a particularly good one.  Will the other person perceive an angry action instead of a wrathful one? We do need to be careful.

 

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Anger harms ourselves first and foremost

While anger can also be nothing more than a mild frustration, wishing things were different than they are; usually anger is the wish to inflict harm on others because they hurt us in some way.  Anger always feels like it is “justified.”  The other person is wrong, they have treated us unfairly, they have hurt us deeply and when we think of them we feel nothing but rage.  We want to say things to them which we know will hurt them so that they realize the hurt they have caused us.  But the truth of the matter is anger hurts the person who is angry far more than it hurts the person we are angry with.  We are harming ourselves.

(6.3) If I harbour painful thoughts of anger,
I shall not experience mental peace,
I shall find no joy or happiness,
And I shall be unsettled and unable to sleep.

Usually we justify our anger in our mind by thinking at least by getting angry we will get what we want.  But even if we get what we want, we are not able to enjoy it because our mind is not at peace, and inner peace is the essential condition for mental happiness.  Mental unhappiness leads to anger, and since there is no inner peace we will be increasingly unhappy and we will look for something to blame.  This then leads to yet more anger.

A few years ago, for about an 18 month period, my mind was consumed with anger – even rage – about a situation that transpired with my father.  Because I couldn’t let go of my anger towards him (despite trying every day to do so), I became an angry person.  This anger pervaded every aspect of my life, clouding my enjoyment of anything.  During the day, I couldn’t stop thinking about my hurt and how wrong he was for inflicting it on me.  I would awake in the middle of the night and not be able to fall back asleep because my mind would resume its anger towards my father.  Even from an ordinary point of view, anger makes us miserable.  I was torturing myself.

We need to make a complete distinction between what we are experiencing now and what causes we are creating.  All of the effects we are experiencing right now have nothing to do with right now, but are the ripening of karma from previous lives.  What we will experience in the future is determined by what causes we create right now in our response to our situation.   Knowing this, we can realize that the only thing that matters is what causes we create now, not what effects we are experiencing.

We all have countless negative seeds on our mind, some ripening, others not.  We are all the same in this regard.  Where people differ is how they RESPOND.  If we respond with Dharma, happily accepting our situation as purification, then no matter how uncomfortable the situation may be, we will be doing what matters.  Good causes, good future, guaranteed; bad causes, bad future, guaranteed.  We realize that nothing we do in this life will really make a big difference in this life, so we stop worrying about what happens in this life and instead focus our attention on collecting our spiritual pennies for future lives.  Then we become a pure practitioner and develop a genuine equanimity towards the inevitable tides of samsaric life.

(6.4) Overcome by a fit of anger,
I might even kill a benefactor
Upon whose kindness I depend
For my wealth or reputation.

Anger is at the root of most negative actions.  Anger itself is a negative mental action, and so just the thought creates negative karma.  But it also leads to us engaging in all sorts of negative actions such as speaking harshly, speaking divisively, harming others, covetousness, malice, etc.  Anger always makes the situation worse because when we get angry with people they no longer want to help us, and if they do so it is only grudgingly, so in the long run it makes things worse.  This makes it almost impossible even to accomplish our worldly goals.

If we look at the arc of human history and the story of our own lives, the most destructive and harmful acts are almost always driven by anger.  Once we hit “send” on that angry email, there is no pulling it back; and sometimes the consequences of it echo for years to come.  One moment of anger can destroy a lifetime of friendship.  By getting mad at our family, our employers, our friends, we create problems and destroy our relationships.  It makes “sense” to us to do senseless things.  We need merely check our own life and that of those we know to come up with endless examples of the harm anger leaves in its wake.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  There is no evil greater than anger

Overcoming delusions is not complicated.  First, we need to identify what they are.  Then, we need to break our identification with them – they are thoughts passing through our mind, they are not us.  Then, we contemplate the faults of the delusions and the benefits of the opponents.  On the basis of that contemplation, we choose to not believe the lies of the delusions and we choose to try think differently in accordance with the opponent.  We then continue this process until we develop new mental habits, where virtue and wisdom come naturally.  Among delusions, anger is the most harmful of them all.

(6.1) All the virtuous deeds and merit,
Such as giving and making offerings,
That we have accumulated over thousands of aeons
Can be destroyed by just one moment of anger.

This is quite a striking introduction to the chapter. Shantideva is pointing out straightaway the faults of an angry mind.  There are many ways in which we can understand anger as being destructive, and from a spiritual point of view it is most destructive in that it takes away the merit that we’re working so hard to accumulate every day of our life.  As spiritual practitioners, we have been given a very special opportunity to create every day of our life an enormous amount of merit. Yet that merit is taken away from us each time we become angry, and it doesn’t have to be full-blown anger to destroy that merit in our mind.

From a worldly perspective, merit is the principal cause of wish-fulfillment.  If you have merit, things will go your way; if things don’t go your way, it is because you lack merit.  So if you have no merit, everything will be difficult and good things will not happen.  From a spiritual perspective, merit is the fuel for our spiritual progress.  It is the fertile ground for a crop of inner realizations.  Without merit, we can make no progress on the spiritual path, and therefore never find the happiness we seek.

For most people the prospect that anger destroys our merit may not seem like a big deal, but for pure spiritual practitioners it is the most terrifying danger.  Pure spiritual practitioner and old people nearing death understand that the only thing that matters is the causes that we create, because they are the only things we can take with us into our future lives.  Everything else is meaningless.  We don’t want to go into our future lives empty handed.  We have worked very hard and endured considerable difficulties to create the good causes we have created for ourselves.  All of our effort becomes a total waste if its fruit all gets burnt in the fire of our anger.  It is like we have been saving up our money our whole life for our retirement, and then on the day of our retirement we take it all out in cash and our house burns down so it is completely gone.  All that wasted work.  Or when we have worked hard on a document for a long time and it gets deleted because the computer crashed.

Perhaps one reason we find it still difficult to fulfill our wishes, and we find ourselves making little progress along that path to Bodhisattva-hood and Buddhahood is because much of the merit we are creating is being destroyed by our anger.  Dedication functions to protect our merit, but if we’re honest we’re not exactly perfect at dedicating our merit.  How often do we dedicate, and when we dedicate, how well do we do so?  We should see anger as a thief stealing our spiritual life.  It makes it as if you never did all the hard work we have done.

 (6.2) There is no evil greater than anger,
And no virtue greater than patience.
Therefore, I should strive in various ways
To become familiar with the practice of patience.

Anger is the worst of all delusions, therefore patience is the greatest of all practices.  Every moment of anger not only destroys our merit but it creates the cause for us to fall into the lower realms.  Shantideva is not saying we need to be attached to the result of not being angry, he is saying the conclusion is we need to apply ourselves fully to trying to practice patience.  The name of the game is trying, even if we don’t succeed, it doesn’t matter because we create causes.  To understand this we need to make a distinction between what tendencies are ripening and what new minds we are generating.  If the tendency to get angry at somebody arises within our mind, this only becomes a new delusion if we assent to that tendency – in other words, we believe it to be true and start thinking that way.  If instead, when the tendency arises, we recognize it as the delusion of anger, realize that it is self-defeating to think in this way, and then choose to try be patient instead, we are not generating the delusion of anger, rather we are practicing the moral discipline of restraint.  Not only does moral discipline create the cause for higher rebirth, each time we train in this way we create the karma for new tendencies of patient acceptance in the future.  With time, we will experience results, it is guaranteed.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Bodhisattva vows of patience

We continue with our explanation of the downfalls of bodhisattva vows associated with the practice of patience.  In the previous post, we talked about the first one of not retaliating to harm or abuse.

Not apologizing when we have the opportunity.  If we have disturbed another person by acting unskillfully, and later the opportunity to apologize arises but, out of pride or laziness, we fail to do so we incur a secondary downfall.  Until we have deep experience of the practice of patience, we will get angry.  This is normal.  We should not expect that we won’t still get angry just because we know better or are taking a Dharma class.  But when we do get angry, after we have calmed down, make a point of saying sorry for having gotten angry.  Explain that getting angry only makes the situation worse, and you are sorry.

When we apologize it does several things:  First, it softens the heart of the other person.  When people are harmed by us, they wind up bearing a grudge against us.  Every moment anger is running through their mind, they are creating terrible karma for themselves and they feel terrible.  When we apologize it enables them to let go because we have admitted we made a mistake and said we are sorry.  A huge emphasis of Christianity is related to forgiveness.  By apologizing we give the other person a chance to forgive.  Second, it is a powerful form of purification.  Purification works primarily on the basis of the mind of regret.  Regret is a mind that accepts that we have made a mistake.  It is quite different from guilt, as we will discuss more as our explanation of this chapter goes on.  But accepting we have made a mistake and making a point of admitting that to the other person is a powerful purification of the negative karma we accumulated by getting angry.  Third, it creates a special patience in the other person.  When we get angry with somebody and don’t apologize, we infect them with our anger and pretty soon everybody is angry at everybody.  But when we apologize for getting angry, the person becomes more accepting of the mistakes of other people.  It also teaches that anger makes us uncontrolled and is an object to be abandoned.  It helps them accept themselves more when they make their own mistakes.  By us apologizing to them, we indirectly teach them to apologize when they make mistakes.  It also gives them a chance to forgive.  I know an abusive father who only once apologized to his family, admitting that he was out of control, and this was enough for the wife and family to forgive him for countless wrongs, before and after.  This has protected them against so much anger.  Fourth, it undoes the bad lesson taught.  When we get angry with somebody about something, what does it teach the other person?  It teaches them that it is justified to get angry about the given issue, so we set them up for a lifetime of getting angry and creating the cause to go to hell on that issue.  When we apologize for getting angry, we undo that damage by showing it is never justified to get angry.  We can apologize for getting angry while maintaining our position on the issue we got angry about (if we are right on the issue in question).

Sometimes we fear saying sorry and admitting our mistakes, because we fear if we do so the other person will lose respect for us.  This is completely wrong.  There are two possibilities:  First, the other person does not think we made a mistake, at which point if we do not apologize and admit our mistakes, we teach them that it is not a mistake to get angry and that this mistake was not a mistake, but the right thing to do.  Second, the other person realizes that it is a mistake, at which point if we do not admit to it, they lose respect for us because we cannot face up to our mistakes.

If we apologize, it cures all of these problems.  In the first possibility, by admitting our mistakes and apologizing, we teach what is a mistake, thereby protecting the person from making the same mistakes, and we show integrity of admitting our mistake even when the other person didn’t see it, so their respect for us grows.  In the second possibility, by admitting our mistakes and taking corrective action, their respect for us increases because we have the courage to learn and do not fear the consequences of owning up to our mistakes and faults.  We should really focus on this one.  Make a point of doing it.  Mentally make the decision to apologize every time you get angry, even if that means you are apologizing 6 times a day.

Not accepting others’ apologies.  If someone who has previously harmed us later apologies and, without a good reason but not out of resentment (which is a root downfall) we refuse to accept, we incur a secondary downfall.  When somebody apologizes to us, by accepting it we are able to let go of our anger and stop creating a mountain of negative karma.  We also give the other person a chance to let go of their anger.  If we don’t accept their apology, they will likely renew their anger and create a bunch of negative karma for themselves.  Again, take everything you know about Christianity and forgiveness and apply it here.  There is enormous healing power of forgiveness.

Making no effort to control our anger.  If we do not make a special effort to practice patience when we find ourselves getting angry we incur a secondary downfall.  We are not vowing to not get angry, that will be impossible for now.  Rather, we are making the vow to try our best.  Because the methods we have work, if we apply them persistently over a long period of time our anger will gradually subside.  All it takes is persistent effort.  When we try, we create the karma to have the effects of being able to be patient in the future.  Our interest is in creating causes, not in experiencing their effects.  Even if we are a raging inferno inside, if we try not to be then we are creating lots and lots of good causes.  With time, this will manifest in our being less and less angry.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  A reminder of our Bodhisattva vows

In an earlier post, we talked about generating the mind of bodhichitta, the wish to become a Buddha for the benefit of all.  Essentially we become aware of our samsaric situation, and that of others; and how if we gained control of our mind we would be able to escape from it.  We see how all living beings are in the same situation, and if they are going to be saved it is up to us to do it.  This leads to the superior intention to take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of others.  We see how we are currently incapable of doing so, but if we were a Buddha we would be able to.  Understanding this, we generate the wish to become a Buddha for all living beings.

The question now is how do we act on this wish?  We do so by practicing the six perfections.  The six perfections are the actual pathway to enlightenment.  By training in them we travel the internal path to enlightenment.  The six perfections are:  giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom.

We can synthesize our practice of the six perfections into the keeping of the Bodhisattva vows.  A few years ago, I did an extensive series of posts going over all of the different Kadampa vows and commitments, which you can find in the special series in the link at the top.  The bodhisattva vows are a practical means of practicing the six perfections.  One of the main reasons why we take vows is it is a special way to continuously accumulate virtuous causes, even when we are not thinking about it.  For as long as we have not un-done our vows, we continue to accumulate merit.  For example, once a trench or a valley has been dug, any subsequent water poured into it will effortlessly follow the path previously forged.  In particular, the karma keeping our Bodhisattva vows functions to create the causes to maintain the continuum of our Mahayana Buddhist practice between now and our eventual enlightenment.  The biggest fear of the wise is losing the path.  If we fear losing the path, we won’t, and therefore we will have nothing to fear.  If we don’t fear losing the path, we very well could and then we would have all of samsara to fear.

If you have not yet taken the Bodhisattva vows, I strongly encourage you to do so.  You can make the request at any Kadampa center around the world, and they are almost invariably given at every empowerment.  Once we have taken them once with a preceptor, we can then take them again any time we wish on our own, and most Kadampas renew their vows every day.  Nonetheless, it is good to retake them in a more formal way from time to time as the impact this has on our mind is often deeper than just taking them every morning in the context of our daily practice.

In this and the next post, I will review the transgressions of the bodhisattva vows associated with the practice of patience.

Retaliating to harm or abuse.  If out of impatience we retaliate to harm or abuse we incur a secondary downfall.  When somebody harms us in some way, our natural instinct is to harm them back.  This just perpetuates the cycle of harm and sows the seeds for future suffering for everyone.  Wishing to break the cycle, we should not retaliate when we are harmed, but instead we should accept it as purification of a long-standing debt.  We should be happy that we are finally bringing an end part of the harmful dance we have with living beings.

Very often we get angry with people when they do not show us the respect that we think we deserve and when they do not listen to us.  But when we get angry at them, we send the message that we are not worthy of respect or listening to – how can we respect somebody who is out of control and cannot admit their faults?  If they show us respect in response to our anger, it is not real respect but rather fear of us, or mafia-respect.  This never works because as soon as the threat of fear is gone, the feigned respect will disappear and they will rebel and retaliate for all the anger we sent at them over a long period of time.  When this happens, they lose all of the benefit that we have given them.  Parents experience this all the time.  If we are patient regardless of the provocations against us, people naturally gain respect for us because this takes enormous strength.  If we are able to go further and respond constructively and positively while everybody else is out of control, then we really stand out and their respect for us grows abundantly.