Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Benefit others with no thought for yourself

(5.57) I should engage only in virtuous actions
To benefit living beings, with no thought for myself;
And I should do so with the understanding that I am like an illusion
That does not exist from its own side.

We should engage ‘only’ in virtuous actions for the simple reason that we wish to be happy and avoid suffering.  Virtuous actions are the cause of happiness and non-virtuous actions are the cause of suffering.  It is only because we believe the opposite that we eagerly engage in non-virtue and only reluctantly engage in virtue.  Engaging in virtue is not complicated:  we simply put the interests of others first, and then work for their benefit.  All virtuous actions naturally flow from the wish to bring benefit to others.

What is the main object of abandonment of a Bodhisattva?  Self-cherishing, working for one’s own sake.  We know if we have a selfish intention, we’re not going to work solely for the benefit of others.  A good test for self-cherishing is we ask ourselves for whose sake are we engaging in our present action.  We need to ask this question again and again.  We will eventually realize that virtually all our actions are motivated by self-cherishing.  Normally, we are completely blind to this fact.  We should pray that it be clearly revealed to us how virtually all of our actions are motivated by selfish desires.  The more we become aware of it, the more we will naturally change because we don’t want to be someone like that.  If we have wisdom, we will realize all selfish actions are necessarily counter-productive actions.  Driven by self-cherishing, we become our own worst enemy.

The reason for this is simple:  the “self” we normally work for doesn’t exist at all!  It is nothing more than a mistaken construction of mind.  We grasp at our body as being our own, but it actually comes from the bodies of our parents, the animals we have eaten and the food harvested by others.  We grasp at our thoughts as being our own, but everything we think is derived, directly or indirectly, from what we have been taught or learned from others.  There is not a single part of our body that comes from us, nor a single thought that does either.  So what, precisely, are we?  We are a reflection of everyone else.  There is no us, we are rather the synthetic result of countless things that are not us coming together.  Take away all of those outside influences, and there is nothing there that we can point to that is us.  So what sense is there in working for something that doesn’t even exist at all?  How foolish is that?

If we are actually aware of who we are – namely the sum of everyone and everything else we have encountered – then we start to impute “self” onto something we see as a reflection of everyone else.  If we are to work for our true self, we naturally work for all living beings because that is, in fact, who we are.  We are the final product of all living beings coming together in a particular way.  To truly cherish our real self, we necessarily must work to bring benefit to who we really are – everyone else.

With a motivation of Bodhichitta, no action can be non-virtuous.  With a motivation of Bodhichitta, we should perform all our actions with an understanding the true nature of things.  In Ocean of Nectar, Geshe-la says moral discipline becomes completely pure when it becomes conjoined with a realization of emptiness.  We need to realize the three spheres of the non-virtue that is abandoned, the person abandoning it, and the being or beings with respect to whom it is abandoned.  We may feel this makes moral discipline more difficult.  Actually it makes practicing moral discipline so much easier.  Why?  Because we understand any harm we do to others we are doing to ourself.  If I kick the dog, I am kicking myself, both karmically in terms of I will eventually experience the effects similar to the cause, and literally in that the dog is quite literally “part” of me, “part of my mind”, a wave on the ocean of my mind.  Just as two waves appear distinct but are by nature the same ocean, so too “self” and “others” appear distinct but are by nature all equally karmic waves on the ocean of my mind.

It’s very useful to view ourselves as nothing more than a reflection of our mind.  But Kadam Lucy says we should go one step further and consider ourselves not to be a reflection in our own mind, but rather we are a reflection in the mind of the Spiritual Guide.  When we adopt this view, there is no trace of feeling of independent self-existence.  It is also easy to then consider ourselves to be an extension of the Spiritual Guide, which enables him to act through us.  Actually it is just him acting at that point.  Why hang on to our “self” at all?  Saint Francis said, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”  To that, I say, “amen.”

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  If you want to help others, don’t judge them

(5.56) I should not become disheartened by the behavior of others –
The childish, who are in disharmony with one another –
But understand how this behaviour arises through the force of delusions
And be compassionate towards them.

The bottom line is most of us simply don’t like being around deluded people.  Their constant negative attitude, wrong views, faulty actions and complete ignorance that they are doing anything wrong just grates at us.  It’s simply no fun to be around them, and we naturally try to avoid them.  It is a fundamental contradiction to claim to be an aspiring bodhisattva yet hold on to an aversion to being around deluded people.  What is a bodhisattva promising to do other than spend the rest of eternity helping deluded people?

The behavior of others should never disturb us. No matter what they may be saying or doing, if their behavior does disturb our mind then there’s something wrong in our mind.  We like to blame others for what happens in our mind, but ultimately we are entirely responsible.  The extent to which others can influence what happens in our mind is the extent to which our mind is under the influence of delusions.

Regardless of their behavior we must be utterly accepting of them, just as our spiritual guide is utterly accepting of us.  Normally, we expect everyone else to behave almost perfectly.  When they don’t, we find fault in them.  We say, “the ‘normal’ reaction would be for the other person to do XYZ.”  We usually feel entirely justified in our expectations regarding others’ behavior.  But thinking “you shouldn’t behave like that” is an unfair and unrealistic expectation of a human being.  What is in fact ‘normal’ is for people to act in deluded, counter-productive, inconsiderate, selfish ways.  Why should we expect anything differently?  It is the very nature of contaminated aggregates to behave like that, just as it is the very nature of fire to burn.  It is not their fault — it’s the fault of delusion. To judge them for not behaving according to our expectations leaves us constantly frustrated and the other person resentful.  The appropriate reaction on our part to the deluded behavior of others is compassion.  Because they are under the influence of delusion, everything they do is self-defeating.

We have to be aware of the unaccepting thoughts arising in our mind.  We have to be careful of such thoughts because they manifest themselves in our words and expressions, and others can easily feel like they’re being told off or judged.  What we say and do can easily upset others.  People sense our disapproval; they know if there’s judgement taking place.  They become unhappy, discouraged, develop negative minds. They feel, “in this person’s eyes I can never do anything right.”  This is especially a problem if people look to us, like our children or students or friends who we help, etc.

Sometimes we think we help people by ‘telling them what they need to hear.’  But we need to check our own mind.  If our heart is genuinely full of compassion, then perhaps sometimes it is appropriate to do so.  But if our motivation is more frustration where we need the other person to change, then this is just anger.  If we accept others as they are, we don’t need them to change at all.  For us, they are perfect just the way they are, delusions and all.  When this is genuine, then we are in a position to actually help people and they will know that what we are saying we are saying for their own benefit.  Otherwise, they just see our frustration and will resist everything we say.

We need to follow the example of Geshe-la.  If we think how many times Geshe-la has told us off and how much he encourages us.  We know a lot of our behavior is wrong.  But still he’s encouraging.  The people who look to us need to sense that from us too.

When we accept others as they are, it creates a space for them to change from their own side.  When they feel judged, then they close up and defend themselves instead of try get better.  If people feel judged, unhappy or discouraged by us, this is a sign of unskillful behavior.   If we want to help people, we need to completely remove from our mind all forms of disapproval.  When they know we are not judging them, they will come to us with their problems and then we can help them.  If they feel judged by us, they will come to us with nothing, and we will be powerless to help them.  Seeing that they are not coming to us, we will feel the need to force our way in.  When we do this, they will internally reject what we have to say.  This will make the situation worse.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Strive to bring joy to others

(5.54) Thus, having checked thoroughly for delusions
And minds that are drawn to meaningless things,
Courageous practitioners should hold their mind steady
Through applying the appropriate opponents.

(5.55) With complete certainty, strong faith,
Steadfastness, respect, politeness,
Sense of shame, fearfulness, and inner peace,
I should strive to bring joy to others.

Here, Shantideva outlines the main causes and conditions necessary for our practices of guarding the mind and moral discipline.

First, we need constant mindfulness of what we are doing with all of our bodily, verbal and mental actions.  If we are not aware of what we are doing nor seek to improve it, we will never change, but continue to be blown by the winds of our delusion and negative karma.  If instead we remain mindful of our behavior, we will become aware of our mistakes and learn how we can do even better.  In this way, we gradually improve and overcome all our faults.

Second, we need complete certainty about the objects to be abandoned and the objects to be attained.  For as long as we grasp at our outer problem as being our problem, we will remain confused about what is to be abandoned and what is to be attained.  We will waste all of our energy seeking to change our external circumstance and invest little in changing our own mind.  For me, the most important distinction on the spiritual path is between our outer problem and our inner problem.  If we are clear about the difference between the two, we will naturally seek two types of solutions:  outer solutions for solving our outer problems and inner solutions for our inner problems.  Happiness depends on peace of mind, delusions destroy our peace of mind, virtue is enhances our peace of mind, our mind goes on into countless future lives.  When we are clear on these fundamentals, the objects to be abandon and the objects to be attained become self-evident.  We have certainty in our practice.

Third, we need strong faith.  Venerable Tharchin explains that the key to effort is realizing the methods actually work.  When we see our spiritual goals are doable because the methods we have are reliable, then effort becomes “effortless.”  When, however, we believe our spiritual goals are unattainable and we have no idea how to accomplish any of them, effort will be almost impossible.  As Buddhists, we generate faith in Buddha Shakyamuni as somebody who has actually completed the path himself.  Because he has “been there, done that” we know he knows what he is talking about.  To generate faith in the Dharma, we are encouraged to test the instructions out for ourselves.  We are encouraged to be inner scientists who verify the truth of Dharma for ourselves.  Everyone who has put his instructions into practice has confirmed for themselves their efficacy.  To generate faith in Sangha, we learn from their example, both their successes and their mistakes.  With faith, we will know we are on the right track and that if we put the instructions into practice, we will enjoy all of the results indicated by the instructions.

Fourth, we need steadfastness, the mind that is undeterred by spiritual adversity.  We have a vajra-like mind that is prepared to do “whatever it takes” to accomplish our spiritual goals, no matter how hard it might be and no matter how long it might take.  Because we have methods that work, if we never give up, our eventual enlightenment is guaranteed.

Fifth, we need respect.  When we have respect for somebody, we look up to them and we naturally seek to fulfill their wishes.  If we respect our spiritual teachers, we will admire their many good qualities and wish to emulate them; and we will naturally wish to fulfill their wish for us to make progress along the spiritual path.  If we respect living beings, we will admire their good qualities and rejoice in their virtues, and we will naturally cherish others and put their interests first.

Sixth, we need politeness.  If we do not act in ways that are consistent with societal norms and expectations, then people will view us strange and have no wish to enter the spiritual paths we follow.  Without politeness, people will find us abrasive and naturally reject our advice, even when it is exactly what they need.

Seventh, we need a sense of shame and fearfulness.  A sense of shame is not guilt.  Guilt is anger towards ourselves and a non-acceptance of the fact that we are not perfect.  A sense of shame seeks to avoid faults for reasons concerning ourself, such as wishing to live up to certain ideals or even simple fear of taking lower rebirth if we do not.  Fear is not a delusion if the object of our fear is valid.  We should fear delusion, negativity, lower rebirth, rebirth in samsara and all those we love taking rebirth in samsara.  These fears protect us from making mistakes and the provide constant encouragement to do the right things.

Finally, we need inner peace.  If our mind is unpeaceful, it is necessarily uncontrolled.  If it is uncontrolled, we will have no ability to bring our behavior under control and our actions will remain faulty.  The more peaceful our mind is the more control we will have over our behavior.

And what should we do with these eight inner causes and conditions?  We should dedicate ourselves to bringing joy to the world.  Normally people bring only problems, but as bodhisattvas we strive to bring joy and meaning to others.  Our path is called the Joyful Path not just because it is such a delight to travel it, but also because it is the purpose of our path, namely bringing joy to others.


Strange Dream: Purifying the obstructions to being able to teach again

I had a very strange dream. I was supposed to teach a meditation class to a group of total beginners. I have not taught a class in a long time. Much happened before the class was to begin. At first, I was completely naked and had no clothes. I was in front of them for a while, but nobody seemed to mind. Eventually, I went to a bathroom to try find clothes, but couldn’t find anything that made sense, so I went back out naked. Then I thought that seems strange, so I went back to find some clothes and found something imperfect, but good enough.

Then, my mouth suddenly filled up with a bunch of gunk, like phlegm, but much thicker, and I couldn’t speak at all. It was so sticky, I couldn’t just spit it out because it was stuck in my mouth. So I went to a different bathroom and tried to pull it all out of my mouth, which was not easy, but eventually I managed to do so for most of it.

Then, I went into the room to begin the class. Everyone was very loud and mentally scattered. I tried to encourage everyone to calm down and eventually sit to do meditation. I then started guiding the meditation, and while I was talking saying things like “let go of your thoughts, etc.” in my mind I saw a demon who was circling around me. Eventually, he latched onto my neck and was trying to strangle me while I was trying to guide the meditation. I thought about how refuge was the only protection. I kept talking guiding the meditation encouraging everyone to let go. I then recalled emptiness, and explained that emptiness provided the best protection because it was impossible for negativity and delusions to latch on to nothing. The hold of the demon on my neck then broke and he started circulating in front of me again and I was mostly free from it.

I then ended the guided meditation and opened my eyes, and some people in the audience had been busy doing Christmas decorations. I then felt I needed to get to know the people around in the audience to know where they were coming from. Most were total beginners, they all seemed to enjoy the meditation.

Then I came to this one woman who had regular clothes on. She then said something about Je Tsongkhapa, which made no sense how she would know him. I then looked at her clothes under her arm, and saw that there were ordained robes underneath. I then asked her how she knew about Je Tsongkhapa, and she started mumbling as if her cover was blown, and then I woke up.

What does this dream mean? I haven’t taught in a long time, but eventually I need to start doing so again. I have a lot of negative karma obstructing my ability to do so – physically, represented by the episode with the clothes; verbally, represented by the episode with the phlegm; and mentally, represented by the episode with the demon. The solution is refuge in the three jewels and in particular realizing emptiness so that there is nothing there for the negativity to latch onto. Each solution to these three levels was imperfect, but good enough for me to continue, meaning for now I should accept good enough to be able to proceed. When teaching Dharma, it is important to know personally the people you are teaching and to accept them where they are at, as represented in the situation with their rowdiness and then doing Christmas decorations. But because people are hurting, they find the meditations meaningful, as represented by the positive reception despite people seeming to be distracted. Finally, we can be certain that some (or all) of the people will be emanations of Je Tsongkhapa in disguise, as represented by the woman who was an undercover emanation.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Becoming like a block of wood, again!

(5.48) Whenever there arises in my mind
The desire to become attached or angry,
I should not do or say anything
But remain as impassive as wood.

(5.49) Whenever I am pretentious, mocking,
Arrogant, or self-important;
Whenever I develop the intention to speak of others’ faults,
Or think of profiteering or deceiving;

(5.50) Or whenever I start to solicit praise,
Deprecate others,
Or use harmful or divisive speech,
I should remain as impassive as wood.

(5.51) Whenever I desire wealth, honour, or fame,
Or the attentions of a circle of admirers;
Or whenever my mind wishes for veneration,
I should remain as impassive as wood.

(5.52) If I develop a mind wishing to say something,
While neglecting others’ welfare
And pursuing only my own,
I should remain as impassive as wood.

(5.53) If I am ever impatient with suffering, or lazy and fearful of virtue;
If I am about to speak recklessly or disparagingly;
Or if attachment to my circle of acquaintances arises,
I should remain as impassive as wood.

Looks like Shantideva has been watching us closely.  He knows how we act.

He provides lots of examples here of the importance of being as impassive as wood when a delusion is about to arise.  If we can’t stop ourselves from acting on our delusions, we must as Shantideva advises switch off and become like a block of wood.  Our mothers always told us if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  Shantideva goes one step further saying if you don’t have anything non-deluded to do, don’t do anything at all.

We need to stop paying any attention to what we feel is causing the delusion to arise. We just forget everything.  Stop thinking.  There will be a strong desire to continue and it will be difficult to just stop.

By doing this, in effect we are taking away the power of the delusion by stopping gross discrimination and feeling.  Without these we cannot apprehend or experience anything, and the delusion will disappear.   If we are to achieve success we must train in bringing about and meditating on the cessation of gross discrimination and feeling.  We need to become familiar with that cessation in our mind.

Geshe-la explained this when he did the teachings on Vajrayana Mahamudra.  It is not the suppression of all gross mental activity, rather it is the cessation of it.  We just let it all go and keep our gross mind unmoving. We achieve a cessation of gross mental activity and gross feelings by letting go of all of it.   When we let it go, we have to have a reason.  Otherwise we will just suppress with this method.  We realize that it is our ordinary mind spinning and it will take us where we don’t want to go, so we don’t follow it.  This is perceived by our subtle mental consciousness.  We observe with our subtle mental consciousness the absence of gross mental activity or feeling.  When we do this, all gross delusions subside.

If we become familiar with this practice we can learn to switch off more and more quickly.  If we’re utterly familiar, we can switch off right there and then in the face of delusion.   Just through this we gain some ability to control our delusions, or at the very least stop acting on them.  In Meaningful to Behold Geshe-la says, “by depriving them from energy in this way, we shall prevent our delusions from influencing our behavior, and they shall fade away.”

With a correct motivation, understanding the benefits of this practice, we try to take this advice of Shantideva to heart, especially with overcoming our desire, uncontrolled desire.  When we have desire we don’t want to stop, we want to indulge.  Sometimes it’s best to use this method.  When it becomes too much, we need to just switch off.  It is not a holding down of gross thoughts it is a letting go of all of them.  We pay attention to something different – the stillness of our mind.  This will give us some space.  With the space we acquire, we then need to debunk the delusion – realize that it is a lie.  If we still believe the delusion but don’t express it, we are suppressing it.  It will just blow up later.  You must use the space to debunk it, otherwise it will just come back.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Hey, watch what you’re doing.

(5.47) Whenever I wish to move my body
Or to utter any words,
I should first examine my mind
And then steadfastly act in an appropriate way.

All our actions need to be considered, rather than be habitual.  We’re learning to be in control at all times of our mental, physical, and verbal behavior. To always have a good heart and follow our wisdom.  We have unusual habits that we’ve been carrying for years and years — responding in ways that have never actually been considered. We need to become conscious of these habits.  We need to pay attention to not just of what we’re saying, but how we’re saying it; not just what we’re doing but how we’re doing it.  Huge problems can arise just from how someone says or does something, even if what they are doing is good.

It is true that as Buddhists we say the most important component in the creation of karma is our mental intention.  But our goal as Bodhisattva’s is to lead all beings to freedom, and we do that primarily through our verbal and physical actions.  Our verbal and physical actions are the medium through which our mental intentions take form in the world.  If our mind is correct but our verbal and mental actions wrong, our karma may be good but our benefit in the world will be limited.  For this reason, just as we need to bring our mental actions under control, we also need to bring our bodily and verbal actions under control.

As with the mind, it begins with becoming aware of what we are physically and verbally doing.  Most people are completely unaware how they come across to others.  Internally they don’t mean to, but externally they can come across as haughty, aggressive, careless, rude, ungrateful, clumsy, or just plain dumb.  Of course we should not be attached to what others think of us, meaning we shouldn’t think our own happiness depends on others thinking certain things of us.  But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about what others think of us as part of our bodhichitta wish to help them.  In the mind of the spiritual person, they are just trying to be a good person, but to others they can come across as uptight, self-righteous judgmental moralizers.  Our pride often blinds us to seeing our own faults, but usually makes us keenly aware of the faults of others.  If we are to change our behavior, we must first become aware of it.

Once we become aware of it, we should seek to identify what we are doing wrong and how we can do better, then we should apply effort to do so.  It is important, though, that we don’t become awkward about it.  If we come across like some motionless, heartless robot or we become so paranoid about doing anything wrong we become paralyzed or overly apologetic for every slight mistake, then people will just think we’re weird!  We need to be natural yet controlled, relaxed yet clear of purpose, easy-going yet meaningful, approachable yet different than others, supple yet strong, confident yet humble, kind yet firm, the list goes on and on.  We are to embody every good quality simultaneously, especially those that seem contradictory.  Such is the path of the middle way.

To keep it simple, though, we shouldn’t do anything with our body or speech unless we have a clear and meaningful purpose for doing so.  If we just remember this, while remaining natural and easy-going, we will gradually find our way to correct action.  Ultimately, our real objective is to bring the guru into our heart, generate a compassionate motivation for those around us, and request that our every action of body, speech and mind is the guru working through us to liberate all beings.  If we can learn such reliance, all of our actions will naturally fall into place.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Spiritual environmentalism

(5.46) If for no reason I begin to perform actions
That cause damage to the environment,
I should recall Buddha’s advice
And, out of respect, stop straightaway.

Shantideva’s advice here is to be friendly to the environment.  Not caring about our environment, being un-thoughtful, reflects a more general attitude which is not in accordance with a Bodhisattva’s moral discipline.  Many of the acts we do to be more environmentally friendly, such as recycling, arguably have a negligible impact compared to the scale of the environmental crisis we face.  But the point is not the physical action, rather it is the mental intention of wanting to protect the whole world.  This mental intention is hugely beneficial because it is motivated by a concern for everyone.  Besides, every little bit helps, so even if a small action, it is better than nothing.

Being considerate of others means being mindful of the impact our actions have on the lives of others, and then taking steps to minimize such harm.  For example, it is the industry and consumerism of the rich world that is causing climate change, but it is the poor of the world who will suffer most from sea-level rise, drought and desertification.  More than a billion people in China are choking on the pollution from the factories filling our stores with goods.  Do we think about them?  Do we think about the species dying out, the fish poisoned by our chemicals, or future generations who will be left with a planet stripped bare?

Sometimes we think there is nothing we can do, we are such a small part of a larger machine destroying the planet.  This may be true, but it is no excuse for not doing what we can do, in our own small way.  Even if no one act solves the problem, every little bit helps.  There are things we can do, the question is are we doing them?  If not, why not?  Is it because of some valid reason, or is it we just can’t be bothered, or worse we just don’t care?

There is a branch of Christianity called “creation spirituality.”  They view the world as it unfolds as the on-going creation of God, and to harm any part of the world is to harm God himself.  They cherish and treasure all of creation, and seek to love creation as their way of loving the creator.  Substitute creation for emanation and creator for Buddha and we have our tantric practice.  There is a branch of feminism called “eco-feminism.”  They view the environment as the body of Mother Nature, and encourage people to always remember with gratitude her kindness.  Sounds awfully similar to a Lamrim meditation.

As Buddhists, we understand that contaminated environments are created by contaminated karma.  If we want to clean up the environment, we need to clean up our own karma and help others clean up theirs.  Samsara is nothing other than the appearing object of ripened contaminated karma.  We do not merely seek to stop littering and polluting, rather we seek to completely eliminate the karmic causes of all contaminated environments by purifying our own and others minds of all contaminated karma.

We all love the teaching, “a pure mind experiences a pure world and an impure mind experiences an impure world.”   Normally we think of the verb “to appear” as an intransitive verb, meaning the subject of the sentence has no role in bringing about the object.  We say, “a Buddha appears.”  Geshe-la, however, likes to use the verb to appear as a transitive verb, meaning the subject brings about the object.  He says, “we appear Buddhas.”  In the same way, as Tantric bodhisattvas, we are not content to intransitively have a clean environment appear, rather we transitively seek to appear a pure environment.  Buddhists, especially Tantric practitioners, are fundamentally profound environmentalists.  We are spiritual environmentalists.