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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“Without an enemy you cannot practice tolerance”

A few weeks after 9/11, The Onion (“America’s Finest New Source”) ran this headline:  “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care about Stupid Bullshit Again.”  It wasn’t fake news but satire, humor, and there was probably some truth to it.  The Onion could use that headline again now and it would be at least partly true.

The election in November and the inauguration in January has left many of us really bummed out.  We have a new term for it:  Post Election Stress Disorder.  PESD.  Evidently, it hits people on both sides.  The American Psychological Association’s recent survey, “Stress in America,” shows that 49 percent of Americans remain concerned about the election, 66 percent are concerned about the future of the nation, and 57 percent were worried about the current political climate.  The election is still stressing people out, while the inauguration is still creeping them out.

Over the weekend, Huffington Post ran an article titled “A Zen Master’s Advice on Coping with Trump,” the Zen master being Thich Nhat Hanh.  The piece includes some quotes from Thay’s new book, At Home in the World.  The HP also asked a nun and a monk from Plum Village in France for some guidance on how to survive in Trumpland.

Brother Phap Dung stated,

“We have the wrong perception that we are separate from the other. So in a way Trump is a product of a certain way of being in this world so it is very easy to have him as a scapegoat. But if we look closely, we have elements of Trump in us and it is helpful to have time to reflect on that.”

The article also quoted James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist and founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, who wrote in The Guardian,

“Trump’s grand and vulgar self-absorption is inviting all of us to examine our own selfishness. His ignorance calls us to attend to our own blind spots.  The fears that he stokes and the isolation he promotes goad us to be braver, more generous.”

The Trump Presidency is almost unbearable to me.  It is an outrage and a national embarrassment.  My fear of and loathing for the man is wide, and deep.  But deeper still is a place within where I know that Phap Dung and James Gordon are right:  Trump is a reflection of ourselves.

The enemy always is.

In 2011, following the death of Osama bin Laden, I wrote:

“As a way of developing abundant compassion, prayers for a monster can be powerful. When we practice loving-kindness meditation, one of the four types of persons we develop compassion toward is a “hostile” person.  Someone with whom we are at odds, have difficulties about, who provokes our anger…” 

Trump is certainly in that category.  I added that “sometimes practicing compassion should be a real challenge.”  Part of the challenge is looking inside and seeing the reflection of our enemy within.  It is going to be difficult for me to summon up warm thoughts of loving-kindness for the monster in the White House.  It is much easier to despise him.  But that is not the Bodhisattva Way.

Compassion does not mean we stop our resistance, or that we cease calling the enemy out for his frequent lies, or stop mocking his alternative reality.  The way I look at it, resistance is compassion, too.  We resist for the sake of ourselves and others.

There is no doubt in my mind the nation, and the world, would be better off if Agent Orange had never run for president, let alone gotten himself elected.  But the enemy is here, and for us, his presence is not a reason for despair; it is an opportunity, a cause for compassion, a test of our capacity for tolerance.

“For a practitioner of love and compassion, an enemy is one of the most important teachers.  Without an enemy you cannot practice tolerance, and without tolerance you cannon build a sound basis of compassion.  So in order to practice compassion, you should have an enemy.

When you face your enemy who is going to hurt you, that is the real time to practice tolerance. Therefore, an enemy is the cause of the practice of tolerance; tolerance is the effect or result of an enemy.  So those are cause and effect.  As is said, ‘Once something has the relationship of arising from that thing, one cannot consider that thing from which it arises as a harmer; rather it assists the production of the effect’.”

Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life*

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As quoted in How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life by Dalai Lama XIV

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Throwback Thursday: Bodhicitta, The Nectar of Immortality

The following is an edited version of a post published in 2014.

The Sanskrit word amrita means “immortality.”  In traditional Indian mythology, amrita is the nectar or “sweet dew” of the gods that grants immortal life.

In Buddhism, amrita appears in different contexts: it might be water or food that is blessed through the act of chanting, or it may be a sacramental drink taken at the beginning of certain tantric rituals. The great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa called the precepts (samaya) “the amrita (nectar) of abundant nourishment,” and there is also the “Ocean of Amrita” a teaching by Padmasambhava, as well as a story about the Healing Buddha appearing before Padmasambhava to give him a cup of amrita that would prolong his life.

It’s best to view both the idea of immortality and amrita as metaphors. The latter, the nectar, represents spiritual nourishment; anything that helps sustain or nurtures wayfarers is amrita, sweet dew.

The purest and most potent amrita is bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the elixir of compassion. In his teaching “The Four Immeasurables and the Six Paramitas,” Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche states,

“[Bodhicitta] is very beneficial for oneself and for all others. So, when someone has bodhicitta, whatever he or she does, is like medicine or healing nectar (Skt. amrita) which brings calmness, peace, and the coolness discussed before.  It is very beneficial and is like a great and powerful medicine. It just flows out quite spontaneously and naturally from the presence of one’s bodhicitta. Take the supreme example of bodhicitta: when the Buddha taught, he led a very simple life and everything happened spontaneously around him. These far-reaching effects were a completely natural outflow of this very therapeutic healing, coming from the very pure motivation which he had. This is very special.”

Bodhicitta is not only the ultimate spiritual nourishment, it is raison d’ê·tre for Buddhist practice, because those who fare on the Bodhisattva Way practice not only for themselves, but also for the benefit of others. Bodhicitta is the aspiration to awaken for the sake of all living beings.  Nurturing bodhicitta is a cause that comes back to nurture us.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva says of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening,

“It is the nectar of immortality prepared for vanquishing death in the world; an inexhaustible elixir to end the world’s poverty.”

Again, we should take “the nectar of immortality” as metaphor, for the non-fear of death.  Fear of death is a negative state of mind, a fixation on the future that distracts us from living fully in the present.  As this fear tightens its grip on our mind and spirit, it weakens our ability to deal with death when the time for it comes, and more importantly it weakens our ability to deal with what is happening now.  When we live for more than just ourselves, we develop courage, even without being aware of it, and acquire wisdom, through which we see that even death is an opportunity for awakening.

Speaking of metaphors, near the beginning of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we find these words:

“Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

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The Real Enemy and True Heroes

Mass shootings like the one in Oregon last week leave many of us with feelings of despair and frustration. Are we helpless to stop these incidents? They also lead to questions about guns and mental illness. Investigators have portrayed the Oregon shooter as an angry young man disconnected from others. How can prevent people like this from amassing stockpiles of weapons?

Frankly, angry and disconnected describes an awful lot of us, and from the Buddhist point of view, we all have mental health issues.

Buddhism teaches that all human sufferings stem from mental afflictions. We also call them delusions. The Sanskrit word is kleshas, meaning, “that which disturbs the mind from within.” A primary affliction is anger, also known as aversion or hatred.

Anger is a vengeful attitude toward one’s self, toward others, towards things that produce frustration, and towards frustration itself. Individuals who live in the realm of anger are obsessed with fault-finding, and while they may display a victim mentality, the truth is, as T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i put it, they are more “like a hawk sweeping the sky in search of prey.”

Dalai Lama6One of the most instructive and powerful Buddhist texts dealing with anger is the one I mentioned in a recent post, Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (or “Way of the Bodhisattva”). The Dalai Lama has given teachings on this work many times, in particular on the “Patience” chapter.* In 2001, I attended one of these teachings in Pasadena California and took copious notes.

Anger has lingering effects. The Dalai Lama said that when strong anger arises, all our normal senses of behavior are destroyed:

When one is under the domination of anger, those around us suffer also. Even friends and family suffer because they worry about our bad mood. Small outbursts of anger may seem to bring some satisfaction but there are long term negative effects. Anger [that arises when another person has harmed us] does not reverse. If we return the harm then the person responsible just becomes angrier and it becomes a vicious circle.”

The Dalai Lama pointed out that Shantideva identifies anger as “the real enemy, our inner enemy.” Anger is very powerful and comes from causes and conditions that we need to analyze so that we can prevent the causes from arising. He said, “The Buddhist way is to try and trace back the causes and counteract them.”

Here, I’d like to say that when we talk about causes and conditions, it is not just causes and conditions. It is also choices. I don’t accept that Shantideva or Buddhism in general is determinism. We have free will. Many of the causes were produced by actions we chose to undertake, and because mental afflictions disturb the mind from within, only we can chose whether or not to take the necessary actions to defeat them.  This should be empowering, for it tells us that we are not at the complete mercy of external forces.

Verse 8 in the chapter on Patience reads,

Therefore, I should eradicate
the fuel of this enemy,
for this enemy has no other function
than to harm me.

According to Shantideva, the practice of patience is the most effective antidote to anger. It involves cultivating tolerance and compassion, but it also requires an ability to endure hardship and maintain a strong determination to remove the causes of anger.

What happens in society is a reflection of what happens in the minds of those who live in that society.  Because of this, we are not helpless to stop gun violence and societal anger.

I believe that Buddhism rejects the notion of helplessness. If there were not a possibility of rational hope for human beings in the face of suffering, the Buddha would not have taught the Four Noble Truths, in which he said, “Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way that leads to the cessation of suffering . . .”

We change the world by changing ourselves and it can have a ripple effect. We are only helpless when we become hopeless, and because we can change, there is always hope.

As the Dalai Lama noted, in itself the mind is neutral and can take either the form of mental affliction or insight into true reality. It is up to each one of us to decide in which direction our minds will move.

Shantideva wrote,

Since my mind is not physical,
no one can destroy it.

And the Dalai Lama said,

We are changing our natural habitual patterns and since what we are changing is so monumental, there can be no relaxing in the battle against mental afflictions. Those who battle mental afflictions are true heroes.”

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* A 1993 teaching given by the Dalai Lama on the “Patience” chapter in Shantideva’s Guide was published as Healing Anger The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective

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Confidence, Patience and Courage

The title of the 7th chapter in Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara (“Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”) is Virya-paramita. As it is used here, paramita means perfection or completion, referring to the progressive stages of practice that allow one to cross over the sea of suffering to the other shore of nirvana. Virya is often translated as energy, zeal, enthusiasm, or strength, while the Tibetan rendering of this Sanskrit word corresponds with “heroic perseverance.”

Buddha001dAll of these meanings are relevant to Shantideva’s message in this chapter, however I am partial to the last two because I feel that one of the prime points he makes is about the strength or courage it takes to ‘hang tough’ through life’s challenges. One translation of the opening verse reads, “Thus with patience I will bravely persevere.”

Patience is an adjunct to courage, as is confidence. The word that matches confidence here is mana, usually translated as pride. It also means arrogance and conceit. Shantideva discusses both the negative and positive aspects of the word, so in the constructive sense, confidence seems more appropriate.

Confidence is trusting the path, a determination to persevere through whatever challenges we may face, and having conviction about the benefits of the altruistic way. It is also self-confidence – not our ego but our self worth, and confidence about the preciousness of all life.

In verse 49 of the 7th chapter, Shantideva says ,

Self-confidence should be applied to virtuous actions, delusions and my ability to overcome them. ‘I alone should do it’ expresses self-confidence with regard to action.”

“I alone should do it” means looking within to ‘see’ your Buddha-nature and trusting yourself, and not relying of things outside of your own life. Believing in our own potential is how Shantideva says that we gain confidence to overcome problems.

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