Study: Generosity makes you happier.

After conducting a study to investigate how brain areas communicate to produce feelings of well-being, researchers at the University of Zurich have concluded that “Generosity makes people happier, even if they are only a little generous.  People who act solely out of self-interest are less happy.  Merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier.”

This is hardly news.  It’s what Buddhism and other philosophies both religious and secular have always maintained.  Yet, insight into how this works is useful.

In the study, the researchers took 50 people and divided them into two groups, one ‘generous’ and the other ‘selfish.’  The ‘selfish’ group was asked to think about spending 100 Swiss francs on themselves and the ‘generous’ group were to consider spending the same money on another person.  Although I’m not sure how they did this, they measured happiness levels before and after the experiment, and found that those in the group asked to think about spending money on others had a larger “mood boost” than the other group.

The bottom line is both simple and encouraging:  Prof.  Philippe Tobler says, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier.  Just being a little more generous will suffice.”

The Buddhist term for generosity is dàna, a Pali word that literally means “almsgiving,” but in general refers to the practice of giving.  The first step (paramita) on the Bodhisattva path is giving of oneself.

Some years ago, in a series of dharma talks on Lamrim ((Tibetan: “stages of the path”), Thubten Chodron, American Tibetan Buddhist nun and founder Sravasti Abbey*, drew a distinction between worldly generosity and what she calls the “far-reaching attitude of generosity” :

“[The] far-reaching attitude of generosity [is] sometimes called giving.  It’s not just generosity as we normally think of it.  Generosity is giving things, which is great; but the far-reaching attitude of generosity is combined with both compassion and wisdom.  It’s different from ordinary generosity, because it is motivated by the wish to become a Buddha in order to benefit others.  It’s very different from ordinary generosity that happens at Christmas time or at Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Valentine’s.  That kind of generosity is very much based on the happiness of this life.”

To achieve the far-reaching attitude of generosity, one must first achieve true selflessness.  This means to practice generosity without making distinctions, without discrimination or preferences.  To practice generosity without preferences is to help others regardless of who or what they are, and it also means giving without any purpose in mind, without thoughts of reward or benefit.

Ultimately, the idea is to dissolve the concepts of subject and object, self and others, because as Seng-ts’an wrote in the “Faith-Mind Inscription” (Hsin-hsin Ming),

“One thing, all things; move among and intermingle, without distinction.  To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about nonperfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality, because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.”

“Trusting” corresponds to the Chinese character hsin or “faith, belief.”  We could also call it confidence.  It’s trusting that the mind’s true nature is awakened mind or Buddha-nature.

The kind of generosity that Thubten Chodron speaks of, the kind of true selflessness that wrote about – these are far-reaching goals.  We might be tempted to doubt ourselves and think, I can’t achieve that sort of all-embracing attitude.   And we can’t, not all at once.  We begin with small steps.  As the University of Zurich shows, just thinking about being more generous can make us happier.

If with kindly generosity
One thinks, “May I relieve living beings
Merely of headaches,”
This produces a boundless positive force…

– Shantideva

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* Sravasti Abbey is the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western nuns and monks in the United States.

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Dalai Lama on Religion, Love and Compassion

On July 28, a crowd of some 40,000 people gathered in Leh India to attend a three day series of teachings by the 14th Dalai Lama on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, one of the most important philosophical works in Mahayana Buddhism.  Some general remarks by the Dalai Lama seemed noteworthy to me (everything he says is noteworthy) and I thought I would share them with you.

A view from the stage looking out at the crowd attending the Dalai Lama’s teaching in on July 28, 2017.

“Many people have gathered here, not for entertainment, business, or for a political rally, but for a spiritual teaching.  What does that mean?  Here in the 21st century all 7 billion people alive today want to be happy and not to suffer.  We’re all equal in that.  Many seek solace in religion, but 1 billion declare they have no interest, saying that religion is exploitative and unnecessary.  All religious traditions commend the practice of love and compassion, which are a source of peace and happiness and warn of the faults of destructive emotions like anger and jealousy.

Scientists say they have evidence that those who cultivate love and compassion have greater peace of mind, while constant anger and fear make us uneasy and are bad for health.  Common sense too tells us that people who are moved by love and compassion are peaceful and happy.  Those overwhelmed by destructive emotions like jealousy and competitiveness feel the whole world is their enemy.  It’s easy to see that love and compassion earn people’s trust and trust wins friends.  Similarly, honesty and truthfulness are the basis of justice.

Economic development alone is not a solution to the problems we face, nor is the use of force.  Peace in the world depends on individuals, families and communities achieving peace of mind.  It can’t be bought.  We need to cultivate those inner values that counter our destructive emotions…

I’m here to give a Buddhist teaching today.  The Buddha clearly said that mind can be tamed and when it is tamed it is conducive to happiness.  It is also said that Buddhas do not wash unwholesome deeds away with water, nor do they remove the sufferings of beings with their hands.  Neither do they transplant their own realization into others.  They liberate (beings) by teaching the truth of suchness.”

Some may be unfamiliar with the term “suchness” (tathata).   As the Dalai Lama is using the term here, I believe it corresponds with B. L. Suzuki’s* definition of suchness as “to see things as they are in themselves.”  It means to see reality, not illusion, and in the context of these remarks, suchness refers to the reality of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada).  We are many in being, however owning to the fact that all things are interconnected, we are one in reality.  Most religions teach this principle in theory but too often religion is often a tool used to divide people, to keep them separate from others.

Buddhist teachers like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh prefer to emphasize the points where religions interconnect, rather than those points where they diverge.  We do not have to agree with another person’s religion but we should be able to respect different religions.  I used to carry around the attitude that “my religion is better than yours.”  Eventually I realized that this was a negative attitude that only constructed walls between people and that it was counter-productive to the Buddhist aim of tearing down walls.

Although it is not an exact quotation, one of the most famous sayings of the Dalai Lama is “My religion is very simple.  My religion is kindness.”  Peace and happiness in the world will only be possible when we all practice this same religion.

For more on the Dalai Lama’s teachings on Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, visit the Dalai Lama’s website here.

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* B. L. Suzuki: Beatrice Lane Suzuki, wife of Zen teacher D. T. Suzuki; also a scholar and author of a number of books on Buddhism and Theosophy.

Photo by Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL

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My New Tumor

Two days after Senator John McCain announced he had a brain tumor, I underwent a biopsy to diagnose a new mass in my left leg and determine whether it is cancerous.

Medicine Buddha statues at Land of Medicine Buddha, Santa Cruz

It is.  It’s a big fat ugly tumor the size of a baseball.

I’m still in the dark about treatment.  My oncologist has mentioned something about an experimental drug.  Personally, I am leaning toward a drug that is non-experimental, one known to work.

When I know exactly what my options are, I will consider them with the knowledge that I am terminal.  Nothing is going to save my life.  That being the case, if my doctor’s plan is to subject me to an aggressive therapy that will make me sick and miserable, on top of the pain and misery I am already experiencing, further degrading the quality of my life, I am not sure that I am interested.  If the treatment might save my life, I would think differently.  But it’s just to keep me alive a while longer.  My feeling is that quality of life is more important than longevity.

Needless to say, I hate all this.  While it is tempting to bemoan my rotten fate, I have to look at this as an opportunity.   It’s as if the gods of destiny, fate, karma, whatever you want to call them, decided that I am just too lazy these days to practice on my own accord so they figured to give me something really serious to practice about.  They keep doing this and I wish they’d just leave me alone.

“With a good heart, compassion for others, whenever a problem arises, you experience it for others, on behalf of other sentient beings. If you experience happiness, you experience it for others. If you enjoy a luxury life, comfort, you dedicate it to others. And if you experience a problem, you experience it for others—for others to be free of problems and to have all happiness up to enlightenment, complete perfect peace and bliss. Wishing others to have all happiness, you experience problems on their behalf.”

– Lama Zopa Rinpoche, The Joy of Compassion

Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings were very instructive and encouraging to me a few years ago when I was preparing for a liver transplant.  Based on Medicine Buddha practices, some of it steeped in Buddhist mysticism, much of it practical and empowering.  He makes clear that healing begins and ends with our hearts and minds.  He maintains that there is no healing without compassion, and indeed, compassion itself is an important source of healing.

“The best healer is someone with the realization of bodhicitta, the altruistic thought to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all living beings…  Every single breath of someone with great compassion is medicine…”

What the immediate future holds I don’t know – but I have made a decision on the end.  I do not want to die in a hospital, or here at home, I want to die in a Buddhist setting, in fellowship with other Buddhists.  My thought is to conduct the end of my life as though it were a personal retreat.  I’ve been looking into Buddhist hospices.  Unfortunately, there are not many.  I’ve only found three:  Zen Hospice in San Francisco, Tara House at Land of Medicine Buddha, and Enso House in Washington state.  If you know of any or if you are a Buddhist caregiver, please contact me.

In the meantime, may you be happy and at ease, and free from suffering.

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A Teacher’s Death and the Tao of Imperfection

Until last week, I had never heard of Michael Stone.  He was a respected Buddhist teacher, author, mental health advocate.  He died July 13.  He was 42 years old and left behind a wife, family, and evidently, legions of admirers in Canada.

Over the weekend, it was revealed that Stone likely died from an opioid overdose.  Naturally, there are some who find this shocking, disillusioning, feeling that yet another Buddhist teacher has let them down.  But actually this is a fairly common story.  It’s just another Buddhist who wasn’t perfect.  There are many such Buddhists.  I know because I’m one of them.

Dharma folk looking to following saints are in the wrong religion.  They should be hanging out with the Catholics.  They have lots of saints.  Most holy ones.  But the truth is, as American writer and salesman for the Larkin Soap Company, Elbert Hubbard pointed out, “Every saint has a bee in his halo.”

Sometimes you see a painting of Buddha with a sort of halo around his head but someone painted that.  Buddhism is a living philosophy.  The Buddha’s teachings centered on the human condition and the most salient characteristic of human existence, suffering.  We may read about how the Buddha was “The Perfect One,” but we have to understand that if he were an actual historical figure, at one time a living human being, he must have experienced suffering even, after he awakened.  There is no possibility that he was truly perfect.

At Lion’s Roar I read something Stone wrote that I thought was worth sharing:

“You’d think that given all this inner work, an incredible network of support, strong friendships, a loving partner and kids, and lastly, a life dedicated to embodying the dharma (literally every single day includes practice and study), that I’d be immune to extreme mental states…

It can be hard to admit even to ourselves that there are times when the stability of awareness that we discover in [meditation] just isn’t there.  When this started happening I’d say my practice needs to get deeper.  But the truth is, there was a chemical change in my brain.”

That chemical change was probably bipolar disorder, which Stone lived with all his life.  In the above quote, Stone is more or less acknowledging his own faults and failures.  I think he is also suggesting that it is a mistake to think that meditation is the magic pill that will cure all our ills.  From what I understand, Stone was a non-traditional Buddhist teacher.  It is certainly refreshing to hear a teacher address his or her own imperfections.  I would much rather listen to a ‘guru’ who says, “You know, sometimes I’m a jerk,” than someone with an attitude of “Gather around children and listen to my perfect words.”

Four words in Stone’s statement stand out for me: “immune to extreme mental states.”  That’s where many of us make our mistake.  We shouldn’t be looking for immunity but rather self-restraint, discipline, balance.  No one is immune.  Even the Dalai Lama gets angry and admits it.

To relieve the sufferings of others, the bodhisattva must suffer his or her own.  If we don’t have sufferings and face them, then how can we help others use dharma to cope with theirs?  And suffering is largely self created, it is unrealistic to expect monks and nuns and dharma teachers to be without faults and problems.

If you follow the link above, you can read the family statement that describes Michael Stone’s manic last day.

In the end, Michael Stone was defeated by the bipolar condition.  But he was undefeated in many other areas.  From what I have read, it seems obvious that he worked on himself as he struggled though the onslaught of extreme mental states, and I have no doubt that this own struggle gave him the insight and wisdom to help others learn to do the same thing.

To win over oneself does not mean to become “perfect.”  I’d say it means to become more human.  A huge part of the struggle is to simply admit that we are not perfect, that we have faults, and then we find the real success lies simply trying to change.  By the same measure, the practice is not perfect either.  So when faced with situations like this, we cannot say, well, Buddhism and meditation do not work.  Yhey only work as well as we do.

I will not defeat cancer.  Does that mean I have failed as a Buddhist?  I am not perfect.  Does that disqualify me as a teacher?  I can only answer those two questions with a third:  How do we judge inner transformation and its results?

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says

Greater the conquest of oneself
than subjugating others,
that one who’s always self-restrained,
that one who’s tamed of self .

Neither deva nor minstrel divine,
nor Mara together with Brahma,
can overthrow the victory
of such a one as this.

Month by month for a hundred years
a thousand one might sacrifice,
but if for only a moment one
might honor the self-developed,
such honor were better by far
than centuries of sacrifice.

I reccommend you read Lynette Monteiro’s take on this story at 108zenbooks.

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Cloud’s Illusions

In The Art of Living, Thich Nhat Hanh says,

“We should not be afraid of suffering. We should be afraid of only one thing, and that is not knowing how to deal with our suffering.  Handling our suffering is an art.  If we know how to suffer, we suffer much less, and we’re no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by the suffering inside.”

I don’t feel I am afraid of suffering.  I just don’t like it.  Suffering sucks.  Especially physical suffering.  I used to think I knew how to deal with suffering.  I am not so confident about it right now.  I am not sure I have yet mastered the art of suffering,

As I write, a dull pain is throbbing through my left leg.  My knee feels as though hot needles are piercing it.  This is my “normal.”  Constant pain has been my reality for over two years now.  It’s called lymphedema and has been described as “swelling in one or more extremities that results from impaired flow of the lymphatic system.”  There is no medical cure.

According to legend, the Buddha’s first teaching was The Four Noble Truths.  The first truth is sarvam idam duhkham: “all this is suffering.”  It’s important to understand that the truth of suffering is based on the two principles of interdependence and impermanence.  With regard to the former, this is why I have always maintained that Buddha could have easily said, “all this is happiness.”   As for the latter, suffering or the “the unsatisfactoriness of life, its pain, its malaise, its inherent ‘ill’-ness” has as its primary cause our inability to find complete and lasting satisfaction.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Shunryu Suzuki puts it much better than I can:

“In Buddhism it is a heretical view to expect something outside this world. We do not seek for something besides ourselves. We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering.  This is the basic teaching of Buddhism.  Pleasure is not different from difficulty.  Good is not different from bad.  Bad is good; good is bad.  They are two sides of one coin.  So enlightenment should be in practice.  That is the right understanding of practice, and the right understanding of our life.  So to find pleasure in suffering is the only way to accept the truth of transiency.  Without realizing how to accept this truth you cannot live in this world.  Even though you try to escape from it, your effort will be in vain.  If you think there is some other way to accept the eternal truth that everything changes, that is your delusion.  This is the basic teaching of how to live in this world. Whatever you may feel about it, you have to accept it.  You have to make this kind of effort.

So until we become strong enough to accept difficulty as pleasure, we have to continue this effort. Actually, if you become honest enough, or straightforward enough, it is not so difficult to accept this truth.  You can change your way of thinking a little bit.  It is difficult, but this difficulty will not always be the same.  Sometimes it will be difficult, and sometimes it will not be so difficult.  If you are suffering, you will have some pleasure in the teaching that everything changes.  When you are in trouble, it is quite easy to accept the teaching.  So why not accept it at other times?  It is the same thing.  Sometimes you may laugh at yourself, discovering how selfish you are.  But no matter how you feel about this teaching, it is very important for you to change your way of thinking and accept the truth of transiency.”

I accept the truth of transiency.  Somehow it doesn’t make things much easier.  It’s still difficult.  I am not afraid of the pain, but I am sick to hell of it.

The question is how deeply inside I accept impermanence.  There is no cure for lymphedema, except in my mind.  Right now, my mind is depressed and I lament at the thought that this chronic pain is going to be the reality of the remainder of my life.  But that’s because I am viewing what I am experiencing in the present moment to be permanent.

All this, our perceptions, thoughts, feelings are like clouds in the sky.  They change shape, they move, appear, and reappear.   I guess it’s like Joni Mitchell wrote, “It’s cloud’s illusions I recall.  I really don’t know clouds at all.”

That’s something I need to change.

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