Confronting and Averting Disturbing Emotions

Now verse three of our text:

(3) Whatever I am doing, may I check the flow of my mind, and the moment that conceptions or disturbing emotions arise, since they debilitate myself and others, may I confront and avert them with forceful means.

We saw the disadvantages of self-cherishing and the advantages of cherishing others, and we’re going to try to value others more highly than ourselves. And what prevents us from doing that, of course, are the disturbing emotions. And so here what is said is that we need to check always our minds, with alertness and so on, because these disturbing emotions, when they come, they “debilitate myself and others.” In other words, they hurt myself, they hurt others, they incapacitate me from being able to help others. And so I have to use “forceful means” to overcome them.

And this type of thought is echoed throughout the various texts, Shantideva and so on, that this is based on and which follow from this. So Shantideva says this very nicely, and this is very important point, that we really have to identify and view these disturbing emotions as our enemies. And that’s not very easy to do, because we’re so very familiar with them. Especially when it has to do with attachment or craving or desire, we think that that’s what’s going to make us happy after all.

Shantideva says:

(IV.28) Although enemies, such as anger and craving, have neither legs nor arms, are neither brave nor wise, how is it that they’ve made me like their slave?

(IV.29) For while squatting in my mind, at their pleasure, they gleefully cause me harm. To be patient and not become angry with them is an inappropriate, pathetic place for patience.

(IV.30) Even if all the gods and anti-gods were to rise up against me as enemies, they couldn’t drag and feed me into the fires (of a joyless realm) of unrelenting pain.

(IV.31) But those strong mighty enemies, my disturbing emotions, can, in a moment, hurl me into them, which, when met, will cause not even the ashes of the King of Mountains to remain.

Shantideva goes on:

(IV.41) When I promised to liberate from their disturbing emotions wandering beings in the ten directions as far as the ends of space, I myself was not freed yet from disturbing emotions,

(IV.42) And didn’t even realize the extent of my (being under their control); wasn’t it crazy to have spoken (like that)? But, as this is so, I shall never withdraw from destroying my disturbing emotions.

And so, that’s something that we really need to work on, to really see that that’s my enemy, my disturbing emotions, and if I’m going to try to help others, and exchange my attitudes toward self and others, and give up the self-cherishing and cherish others – I have to destroy my disturbing emotions, because that’s what prevents me from being able to do this. And they are the ones that cause me all my suffering.

So what we need to do is constantly check the flow of my mind, Langri Tangpa writes. This is, as we were saying, to check with alertness and bring the mind back and back again to these more beneficial attitudes. So Shantideva says this quite a lot, and I think it’s helpful to see all the supporting verses for this, and how it’s been developed more. So, Shantideva starts:

(V.108) The defining feature of safeguarding with alertness is but this in brief: examining, over and again, the condition of my body and mind.

So that’s what we are continually needing to do, is check what’s going on. And then:

(V.40) With the utmost effort, I shall check that the rutting elephant of my mind has not been let loose from how it's been tied to the great pillar of my Dharma intent.

(V.41) Never letting go, for even an instant, the duty of my absorbed concentration, I shall check one by one, like that, (each moment of) mind, (to see,) "What's my mind engaging in?"

Always this introspection to see what’s going on.

(V.27) The thieves (that come in) from their lack of alertness go on, after plundering their mindfulness, (to take,) as well, the positive karmic force they've built up, so that they go to a worse rebirth state, as if robbed by thieves.

(V.28) This pack of thieves, the disturbing emotions, searches for a chance (to break in); and, having found the chance, steals what's constructive, destroying the life of a better rebirth state.

Shantideva concludes:

(V.54) Having examined my mind in this way for fully disturbing emotions and pointless endeavors, being courageous, I shall hold it firmly with opponent forces, at those times.

These last verses, almost are the same as Langri Tangpa’s verse. I hope you’re getting the idea that it’s, of course, very, very good to read through, over and again, all of Shantideva’s text – it's a very good practice to read one chapter a day as part of our daily practice. But to have it in brief, one can also read or recite these eight verses, because it encapsulates a great deal of the essence of what Shantideva teaches.

Atisha, in his Bodhisattva Garland of Gems, says very much the same.

(2) Let me always safeguard the gateway of my senses with mindfulness, alertness, and care. So, let me check repeatedly the flow of my mind, three times each day and each night.

So not only three times, that’s just sort of symbolic, but always watch what’s going on in our minds. And then a very famous verse from that text:

(28) When in the midst of many, let me keep a check on my speech; when remaining alone, let me keep a check on my mind.

Togme Zangpo, in 37 Bodhisattva Practices, also speaks similarly:

(31) A bodhisattva’s practice is continually to examine our own mistakes and rid ourselves of them, because if we do not examine our mistakes, it’s possible that with a Dharmic (external) form we can commit something non-Dharmic.

In other words, externally we are doing something that looks like Dharma – like helping somebody, or doing some practice, or something like that – whereas actually in our minds, because of the disturbing emotions, it’s a very non-Dharmic act. We’re helping them so that they’ll like us, or we’ll get something in return; we’re practicing meditation or some puja, or something like that, for completely neurotic reasons. So we need to constantly examine ourselves for mistakes.

Togme Zangpo goes on:

(35) A bodhisattva’s practice is to have the servicemen, (like in the army), of mindfulness and alertness hold the opponent weapons and forcefully to destroy disturbing emotions and attitudes like attachment and so forth, as soon as they first arise, because when we are habituated to disturbing emotions and attitudes, it is difficult for opponents to reverse them.

And so, that’s the whole point here. When we practice concentration meditation, to gain shamata – a stilled and settled mind – the thing is to recognize more and more quickly when our mind has come under the influence of some wandering, or some disturbing emotion – it’s what Shantideva says as well – and to catch ourselves quickly. Because the more we let it go, without stopping it, then we become very, very habituated to it, and we really get into it, and then it’s really difficult to reverse it. If we can catch it quickly enough with alertness, then it’s much easier to stop it.

And so Togmey-zangpo says:

(36) In short, a bodhisattva’s practice is (to work) for the sake of others by continually possessing mindfulness and alertness to know, no matter what activities we are doing, what is the condition of our minds.

That’s how we work for others – not just the external forms, but by keeping a check on what’s going on in our minds as we are helping, and is it with love and compassion, or is it attachment, or is it a pride, or what is it? And Langri Tangpa said here in the verse, when these disturbing emotions come up, we have to confront them, which means face them “and avert them,” turn them back, “with forceful means.”

And Shantideva also spoke very strongly about how we have to smash these disturbing emotions and be very forceful with it, and merciless. And so he wrote:

(VIII.168) But even when being instructed like that, if you don't act in that way, O mind, then since all wrongs depend on you, it's exactly you whom I shall knock down.

(VIII.169) That time before was different, when I was being ruined by you. But (now) I see you; so where can you go? I'm going to knock all the arrogance out of you.

(VIII.170) Throw away, now, any hope, "I still have my own self-interest." I've sold you to others, so don't think of your weariness; I've offered your energies (to them).

(VIII.171) If, because of not caring, I don't hand you over to limited beings, then, for sure, you'll hand me over to the guards of the joyless realms.

(VIII.172) I've been handed over, like that, many times by you and long tormented; but now, recalling those grudges, I shall smash you, you creature of self-interest.

I love Shantideva.

So, when Langri Tangpa says we’re going to use “forceful means,” this is referring to things like what Shantideva describes so well – Nagarjuna did as well – to overcome attachment and desire for the body of others, to see them as skeletons, to see what’s inside their stomachs, what’s inside their bowels – all these really gory verses that Shantideva has. Put food in their mouth and it turns into vomit and diarrhea, and this sort of things. These are very forceful, heavy, strong means, and these are the type of means that are referred to here. Of course, the strongest means is voidness. But when they speak in general about forceful means, it’s these provisional means that one uses, in terms of thinking of ugliness and dirtiness and so on for attachment; or all these strong methods that Shantideva describes in the patience chapter for anger – the whole long list of those that we’ve had; or for arrogance, thinking there’s always these others who know much more than I do, or who are better looking than I am, or richer than I am – there’s always someone more. Similarly, if we have low self-esteem, there’s also somebody worse than we are. We’re not the worst in the world, so we don’t need to be proud of being the worst.

These are the forceful means that are referred to here, and those are things that we try first. Then, once it is gotten a little bit the force down, the strength down of these disturbing emotions, then if we have enough familiarity, we can of course apply voidness. So a “two-punch method.”

So, let’s take a few minutes to examine ourselves, to see how seriously do we actually take our disturbing emotions? How much do we actually examine ourselves in different situations? When we are alone, when we’re with people, and so on. Do I really take it seriously that these are my enemies, these are the things that cause me all my problems? And how willing are we to actually apply opponent forces? And if we’re not very willing, then looking at the disadvantages, as they are described extensively in all these texts, try to make the decision that, “I am going to try to apply opponent forces.” Otherwise it’s hopeless. Maybe we will apply them when we’re sitting in meditation, but what about real life?

And even if we do apply various opponent forces, it’s important to examine, “Why do I apply them? What’s my motivation for applying them? Is it because I want to be good?” That very often can be a motivation among Western people. We want to be “good”; we want to be “good practitioners,” “good Buddhists,” we want to please the teacher, we want to please the Buddhas, and so on, for a pat on the head or whatever. It’s as Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey used to say, “You get a pat on the head, and then what? Wag our tails? And then what?”

Or is it the case that we’re doing it out of a sense of duty? So we have to examine why are we applying these opponents? Is it just out of a force of habit? “It’s in the law of Dharma, it’s written, so I have to do this.” Or are we really motivated by seeing that this really is my enemy? This is what causes me all my suffering, and prevents me from helping others, and causes me actually to hurt others. That’s the important point, because, as I say, even if we do start to apply opponents, we could be doing it for quite a non-Dharmic reason. As Togme Zangpo said, we can be engaged externally in what looks like Dharma activities, but internally actually it’s not a Dharmic activity at all.

It goes back to the four noble truths – how seriously do we take them? And not just in theory, but personally. “I want to overcome my anger so that you will like me.” It’s not a very Dharmic reason. “I’ll overcome my attachment to you so that you won’t run away and you’ll stay with me.” Very common, as you get further into Dharma.

So let’s examine ourselves for a few minutes.

Verse three in our text also referred to confronting and averting our conceptions as well as soon as they arise.

(3) Whatever I am doing, may I check the flow of my mind, and the moment that conceptions or disturbing emotions arise, since they debilitate myself and others, may I confront and avert them with forceful means.

What this is referring to is not just our ordinary conceptions or conceptual thoughts, because actually that would be almost impossible for us to get rid of at our stage. When we speak about conceptual thoughts in general, how we understand that is in thinking in terms of or through categories. And so, when we see this object, we think of it as “a table.” That’s a conceptual thought, because “table” is a category and there are many, many other objects, which can also be called “table.”

So, it’s is not really referring to that specifically, but it’s referring much more to “prejudices” or “preconceptions,” strange thoughts, like: “This person is an idiot,” and “They’re no good,” and “This person is horrible.” These type of thoughts, conceptual thoughts, these are the ones that debilitate us. “Oh! I can’t possibly deal with this, it’s too much for me” – these type of thoughts is what it’s referring to. Prejudices, preconceptions.

Question: Like putting everything into a box? This is a such and such a person, that’s a such and such a person...

Alex: Right, but I mean it’s still thinking in terms of categories, but it’s a heavier category than thinking, “This is a table.” “This is an idiot.” Well, he may be an idiot. There are many other people who are idiots, so that’s a conceptual thought, but it’s a heavier type of conceptual thought than thinking, “This is a table.” Thinking, “This is a table” is not going to debilitate us, as the verse says; whereas thinking, “This is an idiot” and then you get really angry and so on, does damage us. So one has to discriminate here. “This is a human being” – I mean that’s a conceptual thought, but it’s not going to damage our ability to help others.