Developing Self-Dignity and Will-Power

Review: Precious Human Life

We were starting this morning going through the lam-rim graded stages of the path from the point of view of how they help us to develop a healthy sense of self. And we saw that thinking in terms of the precious human rebirth gives us a very positive attitude toward ourselves because we see how fortunate we actually are. We see how rare it is that we have all these features available to us, temporary freedom from the worse states and so many opportunities that are available, particularly when we compare ourselves to the vast majority of population. Also if we compare ourselves to all the other life forms, whether we’re thinking in terms of the six realms of beings, or if that is difficult to take seriously then at least all the other forms of life on this planet, we see that in fact it’s quite rare, our situation.

So, we develop a great sense of appreciation; we’re very grateful for the fact that we have this precious human life now. We value it very highly and we realize that it is not going to last forever. We will grow old; we may get very sick as well; and we certainly will die. And after we are dead then if we think in terms of eternally existent “me,” then we’re going to continue in some sort of form with some further experiencing of things. Perhaps it is a bit unknown now, but it certainly could be an awful lot worse.

Other Types of Life Forms and Levels of Happiness and Unhappiness

This is always a difficult issue when we think of the various other types of life forms that Buddhism asserts. It’s difficult to take that seriously. But the way that I approach that myself is to think in terms again of mental activity, like we were speaking before. “Me” is labeled onto an individual continuum of mental activity of experiencing, and that mental activity will have various mental factors that accompany it and different types of consciousness – so various types of sensory consciousness, mental consciousness, and also the mental factors, particularly happiness, unhappiness: some level of happiness. And the boundaries of what we are able to experience in any particular area – whether we’re talking about physical sensations or we’re talking about sight or we’re talking about happiness, unhappiness, etc. – those are going to be pretty much related to the physical aspects that we have, the physical apparatus.

We know that with simple examples, with the brain of a human we can understand so much more than with the brain of a fly, obviously – although both of us have brains. But the hardware that we would have available to us for understanding if we had a fly brain wouldn’t get us terribly far, would it? And the eyes of different types of animals – some can see in the dark; with human eyes we can’t really see in the dark. Eagle eyes can see very far; human eyes can’t see as far. The dog nose has far greater ability to smell than a human nose – a far greater range I should say. Many animals can hear better than we can. So, it’s quite clear with sensory apparatus that the scope of what we can experience is very much dependent on the physical basis, the hardware.

So, that should also be the case in terms of physical sensations as well, in terms of pleasure and pain. After a certain level of pain with a human body we get unconscious so we’re not able to experience beyond the capacity of what the body will tolerate. And also by extension then, the feeling of happy and unhappy. When we talk about suffering, we’re not talking about the physical sensation of pain; we’re talking about the mental factor of happiness or unhappiness. Happiness: you want it to continue, you don’t want to be parted from it. Unhappiness: you really want to be parted from it.

We really start to wonder then, would the capacity for unhappiness and happiness also be proportional or dependent on the physical basis that we have for experiencing either mental states or physical states? This becomes quite interesting to analyze I must say. Try to compare levels of unhappiness. Let’s say somebody who has Down syndrome and is not even aware of their situation; and someone who is highly intelligent and analyzes, and suffers from terrible depression and nervous breakdowns and stuff like that. It’s always said in the teachings that mental suffering is far worse, far greater, than physical suffering.

Thinking like that, I think that the level of happiness and unhappiness that we could appreciate – the spectrum – is quite different dependent on the type of physical body and the type of life form that we have. By extension then we could think of the entire spectrum of happy/unhappy, pleasure/pain, and imagine that there could be physical bases that would have the capacity to experience any portion of this spectrum. So, if we’re going to become nothing, if that’s what we believe, after we die, that “Now I am dead,” and it’s pretty unknown what that will actually be – it’s pretty frightening. When you are nothing, is it depressing? What is it? One starts to wonder what are the characteristics of “nothing,” of experiencing “nothing?”

But, “nothing” is happening; if “nothing” is happening, don’t you feel pretty bored? You’re pretty unhappy if nothing is happening; well imagine nothing happening for eternity, how bored you would be. You’d be pretty unhappy. Now I don’t know if that makes any sense or if that’s just joking and so on, but I think that this helps to develop this sense that “I want to avoid, after I die, things being worse than they are now.” We don’t want to be stuck in the Big Nothing forever. And if we follow the Buddhist teachings, we certainly don’t want to be reborn with the physical basis, or even as a human being, with which we’ll have an awful lot more suffering and more problems, and we will not have the ability to be able to continue on the spiritual path.

Safe Direction

So, we develop a healthy sense of fear of these situations. It’s important to understand that there are two types of fear.

  • One is feeling that there is nothing that can be done, that “I’m helpless and it’s hopeless.” Then that’s really horrible fear, very difficult to bear.
  • But there is a healthy sense of fear with which we know there is something that one can do to avoid a terrible situation, and therefore you’re careful. Like if you’re driving a car – “I’m afraid that I would have an accident and so I am careful, the way that I drive.” If I don’t care whether I have an accident or not, if I’m not afraid of having an accident, then we’re going to be very reckless and it could be a disaster.

So, when we speak about the causes for refuge, what I prefer to call “safe direction,” it says that one of the causes is a state of fear – it’s this healthy sense of fear. And it is based on a healthy sense of “me,” of the conventional “me” – that “I care about what happens to me and I don’t want to be in a horrible situation in which I can’t make any further progress, and I see that there is a way to avoid that. So therefore I am going to go in that direction.” And that’s important to understand, that without that healthy sense of “me,” we would never think to put a positive and safe direction in our life, which is indicated by so-called “refuge.”

If I didn’t care about myself, I wouldn’t even want to make any effort to avoid suffering. I wouldn’t care. You know, we see this type of attitude with people who won’t give up smoking, that well, “I don’t care if I get cancer. I don’t care what happens; I want to smoke.” So, they don’t really care about themselves actually. People in the audience who are still smokers have a big smile of guilt on their faces – real embarrassment – but, if you take all of this seriously, I have a precious human life, I don’t want to lose it; I want to do something that is going to prolong it as long as possible so that I can use this opportunity before it’s lost and I want to try to avoid not getting further opportunities in the future. This is the whole mentality; so it’s all based on a healthy sense of “me.”

Now, there is something that we can do; this is in order to avoid worse situations in the future and this is to put the safe direction of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in our lives. And we have to understand what is that direction? What are the actual Three Jewels? There are several levels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, but if you look on the deepest level, then the Dharma Jewel is referring to the true stopping of problems, you know, of suffering, of all the forms of suffering, and the true paths, the true pathway minds: that’s the true levels of understanding that will bring about the true stopping of the problems such that they will never recur. So, it’s the third and fourth Noble Truths.

That’s the direction that I want to go in. I want to go in the direction of trying to attain a true stopping of the causes of suffering and problems and I want to attain the true understanding or pathway of mind to understand that which will bring about that true stopping. That’s the direction, a very positive direction. It makes sense. The Buddhas are those who have actually attained this in full and have taught and shown us the way to achieve it ourselves and the Arya Sangha are those who have started to attain true stoppings and true understandings. They have attained them in part. And they are very, very helpful because there are various levels, these Aryas, and it gives us encouragement that attaining this level of a Buddha is something that you work on in stages. So, it seems more attainable and so it really gives us support to know that there is this Arya Sangha.

Okay, so those are the Three Jewels; that’s the direction that we want to go in, and we care about ourselves, we take ourselves seriously and therefore there is this direction that is possible to take to avoid suffering. Well, I want myself to be happy. I don’t want to be unhappy, so we would try to go in that direction. We see that it’s possible. Think about that.

It’s quite unfortunate that many people trivialize refuge, and I think that’s because of not really understanding on a deeper level what it’s all about. So, the meditations that are recommended in some of the later lam-rims are very, very helpful for this. What we do is we meditate by imagining that we are falling off a cliff into the lower realms – more horrible rebirth – and how awful that would be. And then if we know that there is a way to save ourselves – open the parachute or whatever – that we would certainly want to do that. And then we imagine that we are just on the verge of falling. We’re right on the edge of the cliff about to fall. You’re really frightened that you are going to fall and so you wish that you had strengthened your core muscles so that you could keep your balance and not fall. And then you imagine that you are on a conveyor belt and it’s heading toward the edge of the cliff and is going to dump you, and how strongly we would want to wake up so that we jump off the conveyor belt.

These are quite powerful images that we can use to elicit a sense of fear, and we call upon very, very basic instincts. It’s a survival instinct to survive and not fall into a fire or something like that. That is the type of primal instinctive drive that we want to use to put this safe direction in our lives so that it really really becomes very basic within us. As a result of thinking like this, we really want to somehow remove the cause for worse rebirths; or remove the cause for an eternal damnation in hell; or remove the causes for dying with regrets and fear of passing into an unknown nothing.

Please think of this. “I want to avoid worse rebirths and to do that I need to avoid and get rid of the causes for worse rebirth. I want to take some preventive measures” – “preventive measures” is literally the translation of the word “Dharma.”

Okay, now, the first thing that we want to do then in terms of going in that safe direction is to remove the causes for gross suffering, the suffering of suffering – so the causes for unhappiness – and experiencing terrible rebirths and all sorts of horrible unpleasant things happening to us. And according to the teachings in Buddhism, the teachings of karma, that type of suffering of gross suffering, if we’re experiencing that, the first law of karma is that it’s the result of destructive behavior.


When we’re talking about karma – I’d like to point this out – we’re not talking about the action, although the Tibetan word for “karma” is the colloquial Tibetan word for “action.” And so Tibetans will very often when they speak English, translate the word “karma” as action. It doesn’t mean action. If it did mean action, then think of what follows from that. We want to attain complete eradication of all karma – you want to get rid of all karma – well if karma just meant action, all that would mean is that you have to stop doing anything and then you would be liberated. So that certainly doesn’t mean that.

That’s another method of analysis that we use in Buddhism. See if there are any absurd conclusions that follow from an assertion. And here the assertion is “karma is actions.” If karma is actions, then you have to just get rid of all karma (means) you would just have to get rid of all actions. If I get rid of all actions, am I liberated? No. So, the assertion is wrong that karma means actions. It’s a problem of translation.

What karma is speaking about is compulsiveness. There’s a compulsive aspect to our behavior, compulsive because of the instincts, the tendencies that have been built up by our disturbing emotions and our confusion. Therefore we act in a compulsive manner. You have no control over it. You know, compulsive eater, compulsive tapping your fingers – this type of thing.

What’s the difference between “impulsive” and “compulsive?”

“Impulsive” means that it just came to my head to do it. “Compulsive” (means we have no control over it, for instance being) a compulsive liar, compulsive eater. “Compulsive” here, when we talk about karma, has to be with both positive and negative. So it’s not just compulsively lying or stealing or something like that. It’s also a compulsive perfectionist, who’s very, very neurotic. “I have to be perfect; I have to be good.” So it’s based on a big, big “me.” It’s (based on) a disturbing attitude, and its compulsive. Perfectionism – it’s the perfect example. Someone who is compulsively cleaning their house, compulsively washing their hands. It’s positive; there’s nothing negative about it, but it is totally out of control and very neurotic. Or compulsively correcting others.

So, that’s karma. That’s what we’re talking about in karma. What you want to get rid of is this compulsiveness. It’s not that you want to stop doing anything. Let that sink in because perhaps this is new.

And it fits the definition. That’s the important thing – you get the definition and then you try to figure out what is it talking about. So when we feel like lying or feel like going to the refrigerator, this is what ripens from karmic tendencies. You feel like doing it; you want to do it. So karma – it’s the compulsiveness that then draws you into the action. First you feel like doing it and then the compulsion draws you into the action and you do it.

Okay. Now the classic presentation here in the initial scope of lam-rim – the classic presentation of karma – is that the problem here, the cause of our suffering of suffering, is our unawareness of cause and effect, behavioral cause and effect. We just don’t know that if we’re unhappy and we have suffering, it has arisen from destructive behavior. We just don’t know that. Or we have an incorrect view that it came from nothing or whatever. So we work to get rid of this first level of unawareness or ignorance – unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. We’re not talking about cause and effect of kick a ball and it goes over there; we’re talking about cause and effect in terms of our behavior and what we experience.

So the classic presentation is that “I don’t want to be unhappy, I don’t want to have gross suffering, and I understand that it comes from destructive behavior. So, when I feel like acting destructively – because that feeling will come up from previous causes – I just won’t act on it. I will refrain.” That’s the standard teaching of this initial scope level of dealing with karma. I’ve been teaching lam-rim very, very slowly, going through Lam-rim chen-mo [Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path] basically, Tsongkhapa’s text; we’ve been on it for more than four years once a week and when we came to this section I asked my students “Why don’t you lie? Why don’t you cheat? What’s the reason?”

Reasons for Not Acting Destructively

So please examine yourself for a moment. Maybe you do cheat and bully and lie, but if you don’t, why don’t you? Is it because you are afraid of worse rebirths and unhappiness that will follow from that and therefore you refrain? Be honest with yourself. Why don’t we cheat and hurt others?

We don’t want others to think badly of us.

So if you could get away with it, it would be okay if nobody knew?

It’s just meaningless to lie because it doesn’t matter whether somebody will get to know it or not. It just means short term benefits. In the long term it’s not going to work.

Okay; so you do have some belief then in terms of cause and effect.

And some guilt because I’ll feel bad about myself.

Okay, now we’re starting to go in the direction of what my students responded. Anyone else?

I don’t lie because I don’t want other people to lie to me.

Right, that gets more into the actual Dharma teaching that as a result of lying other people lie to us. As a result of cheating other people will cheat us. The result of always interrupting and talking nonsense is nobody takes us seriously.

So, fine; if this is quite sincere that we don’t want consequences, we don’t want to cause problems and so on – fine; that fits perfectly with the Dharma teachings. But what I found from my students and also thinking in terms of myself as well, the answer usually was “It just doesn’t feel right.” It doesn’t feel right to cheat, to lie, to be a nasty person. Very simple answer, but a very profound answer. You feel uneasy. Would you agree?

So now we bring in our conceptual framework of the fifty-one mental attitudes, and we see which one is this. How would we describe that phenomenon of “It just doesn’t feel right?” And we find one mental factor called “a sense of moral self-dignity (ngo-tsha shes-pa).” We care about what happens to us and how what we do affects us. So it’s a sense of dignity, self-worth. “I think enough of myself that I wouldn’t stoop that low to act that way. I have more self-dignity. It doesn’t feel right to act in this low way. I have too much respect for myself; that’s not the type of person that I want to be.”

We find that Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakosha (Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge) says that this is a mental factor that accompanies all constructive behavior. We act destructively when we don’t have this; when we have the opposite, when we have no sense of self-dignity. We don’t care about how it reflects on ourselves. So it is not so much what other people think of us, it’s what we think of ourselves that is going to affect our behavior. That means a very healthy sense of a conventional “me,” that we respect ourselves. And you can see how there is a sequence of development here of a more and more positive attitude toward ourselves. This is what I’m describing with the Western term “a healthy sense of self.” Think about that.

Okay, the second mental factor that accompanies all constructive behavior is perhaps much more relevant in an Asian context. We have to examine how relevant is it for us. It is care for how our actions reflect on others (khrel-yod). Asians typically don’t think of themselves just as individuals, but they think of themselves as a member of a family, and so “The way that I act reflects on the honor of my family, my whole family. And so I don’t want to bring shame or bad reputation and so on, on this larger unit of the family.” Or it could be your village, or it could be to speak in terms of loyalty to a country – what people think of Latvians, what people think of Germans or Americans or of Buddhists. So how my behavior reflects on others. If we care about that, then we would also refrain from acting destructively. So, this is included according to Vasubandhu in the state of mind of refraining from acting destructively, which is how “constructive behavior” is defined.

As I say, with Western society, with so much emphasis on the individual, I wonder how omnipresent this mental factor is in constructive behavior. I don’t know. One has to examine within oneself, is there a larger sense of this healthy conventional “me,” which, in the Asian context, would include our whole family, that would be relevant to this discussion? Basically is there a larger unit that I feel is part of my identity? That I think is an individual matter, but interesting to think about how this might be relevant to me.

It could be, for instance, if you’re a woman, how this reflects on women? You have this “Well, if a woman acts like this or like that, people have this terrible low opinion of women and so I really have to act in a way that will bring societal respect to women so that they’re treated equally.” That could be a factor. We might not even really consider how relevant this would be in terms of our ethical behavior.

I guess in our case it’s more probable for people who are more involved in Buddhism, it’s actually what would people think of how Buddhists act.

Right, what would people think of how Buddhists act? What would people think of how a small country like Latvia is? You know, that the world thinks “Ah, insignificant tiny little country, what difference does that make?” So, you are motivated by this consideration that “If I am successful, if I do something really proper and praiseworthy, it reflects on my country.” As I say, it could be different with different people.

In any case what we develop from this is a responsibility for our actions. This builds up a healthy sense of “me” – of the way that we act, the way that we speak, the way that we think – a sense of responsibility. You know, “I don’t want to be unhappy; I want to be happy. And not just now – not just immediate gratification – but in the future. And I’m willing to postpone immediate gratification in order to ensure future happiness” – like saving for your old age, or only buying what you can afford and not buying all sorts of things on credit so that you don’t have to worry about not being able to pay it back and losing everything, if you want to use a modern example.

So it’s the sense of responsibility based on a healthy sense of “me” [that causes me to refrain from acting destructively.] This sense of responsibility [comes from knowing] that I will experience – I mean this is the first concern – that I will experience the consequences of my behavior. And we have to understand that I feel worse when I cheat and when I lie, when I cause trouble to others. Not just now but in the future as well; I feel bad.

A very good example is worrying, compulsive worrying. Are you happy when you’re worrying? No, absolutely not. And it’s a long term unhappiness; it can lead to depression. We’re compulsively worrying all the time, so it repeats and so on. We need to make that association that this type of self-destructive behavior causes my unhappiness. So we take responsibility. “I want to avoid it; I want to stop it.” It might not be easy; compulsive behavior is very difficult to stop. And it requires self-control.

Exercising Self-Control

This is the whole strategy on this initial scope of lam-rim: the strategy is to exercise self-control. When I feel like acting destructively, I understand that it will be self-destructive and it will cause me more problems, and I exercise self-control not to act out what I feel like doing. If you’ve ever tried to go on a diet you know what I’m talking about. You go on a diet: “I want to lose weight” for whatever reason might be our reason: health, look better, whatever. But just because I decide to go on a diet doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop feeling like eating. I will feel like eating. That’s then the ripening of previous karmic habits: that I walk past the bakery and I see this cake and I feel like I’d love to have a piece of that cake. That’s going to come up automatically. That’s the ripening of karma. We aren’t going to be able to get rid of that at this stage. So, don’t feel badly about that. The point is to exercise self-control at that moment when we feel like going into the store and buying the cake, and don’t do it. Don’t just compulsively go and buy it or go to the refrigerator.

That’s not easy, is it? But what does self-control depend on? It depends not only on this discriminating awareness between what is helpful and what’s harmful. You know, “If I act destructively it’s going to lead to problems,” so you discriminate. I know you could say, “Well I know that, but I can’t control myself.” That happens, doesn’t it? You know, “I know that I shouldn’t smoke and I’m trying to give up but I still feel like smoking.” That feeling, that wish, is going to come up. So, now, in addition to knowing what is beneficial and what is harmful, you need this healthy sense of a “me” – that I have this self-respect; I have this positive feeling toward myself so that on that basis I can exercise the will-power of the conventional self, “me.”

Now the smokers in the room are looking very uncomfortable and their faces are turning red. But in any case I think this is very, very true that we’re only going to be able to exercise self-control and will-power in a very positive way if we have this very positive attitude toward ourselves – this sense of self-dignity. Otherwise, you know, “Well I don’t care.” If I don’t care then you don’t exercise any self-control. You don’t have any will-power. It’s very interesting to analyze, what will strengthen self-control and will-power?

Now, we have to be a little bit careful here because although we’re building up a healthy sense of this conventional “me” to be able to exercise self-control and so on, it can also re-enforce an inflated sense of self. So, while we are building up a conventional “me” and we have at this point put already some effort into it, now we can start to watch out for the inflated sense of “me.” That inflated sense of “me” is the self that “I should have been able to control myself;” the self that should and could have this power of self-control and so because I didn’t, I’m guilty. That’s an inflated sense of a “me.” You know, the person who becomes a policeman or a policewoman policing themselves to control and then they’re completely stiff and so on. This is unhealthy. Then when they slip up and they don’t exercise that self-control, then they really feel guilty and “I should have been able to control myself” and they beat themselves psychologically.

Of course, when we look at the teachings and the examples, we could think how easily we could go to that extreme. I’m thinking of the example of Ben Gungyal (’Ban Gung-rgyal’Phen rKun-rgal) – that’s the Tibetan name – who at the end of the day would have a little collection of white and black stones and would review the day and all the negative thoughts and destructive things that he did. He put a black stone for each of them; and for all the constructive ones, a white stone. And if there were more black than white then he’d scold himself, and more white than black then he’d congratulate himself and resolve to do better in the future. Well, that could become quite dualistic, couldn’t it?

This type of self-examination at the end of the day is of course very helpful if we are not aware of just what’s going on in our lives. How often are we acting constructively or destructively? So, it is helpful; but, be careful not to go to this extreme of this solid “me” that’s the policeman and this “me” here who is on trial – this dualistic view. One great master said that if we examine our lives honestly to see how many times have I in my life gotten angry and been nasty and unkind, and how many times in my life have I been really kind and done something beneficial for others – we sort of make a list – then it’s very clear where we’re going in our future lives.

So this is for a basic evaluation to motivate us to do something. So, this development of self-control and will-power based on the discriminating awareness – a correct evaluation of how we’ve been acting – needs to be done with a healthy sense of “me” and watch out for this inflated sense of “me.” So think about that please.

Okay, so here I just wanted to point out what we need to watch out for; but, actually in this initial sequence of developing ourselves, a healthy sense of self through the lam-rim, then exercising self-control and will-power will undoubtedly be based on this sense of an inflated “me,” that “I have to be in control.” It’s on the intermediate scope that we’re going to deal with that particular issue (of an inflated sense of “me”); so in the beginning it’s quite natural that this is how we will approach it. Okay? That’s how you start. Then you have to refine the way that we exercise self-discipline.


Analyzing Karmic Tendencies

The bakery story – once we are already passing the bakery and we feel the scent, we see the looks of the cake. That’s it; we can’t do anything at that point, right? So, what are the strategies of how we can approach this? Maybe we chose a different route, maybe we do something else... What would be your suggestion?

Togme Zangpo in 37 Bodhisattva Practices talks about when a bodhisattva leaves his or her homeland. It’s when the longing desires draw us in one direction and anger causes us to be so destructive – I forget the exact quote – but the point is when a situation is too strong in terms of acting as a condition or circumstance for disturbing emotions to arise, then, if we can’t handle it, avoid it. It doesn’t solve the problem but at least it gives us a temporary timeout to be able to work on the problem.

You see, when we have this type of situation and then you take timeout and you avoid what it is that is going to trigger your compulsive behavior and the disturbing emotions, then you have to start to analyze. You’re asking: how do you work on it, so I’m trying to answer that. So now we take time out and we try to analyze and see what’s going on. And as I mentioned yesterday, this analysis of causes and conditions is very, very helpful here. Remember, we are talking about when you’re in some sort of situation, see that it arose from not only karmic causes, but also from many, many conditions.

So, we need to see that there are many conditions that are going to cause this karmic tendency to want to over-eat, to buy that cake, this type of thing. There are going to be many conditions to cause that tendency to ripen into feeling like eating the cake. So one of those conditions of course is the external stimulus of the cake being right there, and somebody offering it to us – that makes it even worse. And if we analyze, we see that there are many, many causes and conditions that are involved with why we feel like eating: there’s the social pressure – say if everybody is having cake and it’s being served, then this social pressure is to have a piece of cake; there could be our diet – but we’re hungry; there could be the economic situation that now cakes are more available than they were in Soviet times. There can be many, many conditions that are going on here besides just the karmic tendency that I have to over-eat and the strong tendency of longing desire for sense gratification.

By analyzing like this, it helps us to overcome one of these obstacles that is here, which is what I was saying, this inflated sense of “me” – that “I should be in control, but I’m not in control.” “I feel guilty so I want to run away.” You know, this type of feeling and then, okay, you take a timeout; but during that time out you’re just feeling bad about yourself. So, you have to work on that. This timeout is not a punishment; we could look at it as a punishment – that is going to be a very unhealthy way of looking at it. “I’m not good enough to be able to be there and deal with the bakeries so oh, I have to go away.” It’s very low self-esteem that’s involved with that.

So we have to work on a little bit deconstructing this inflated sense of “me”; that it’s all because I’m not good enough, that I have no self-control. We work on that and see that being able to exercise control and having the feeling to eat and so on – all of this is based on so many causes and conditions. And because it’s based on so many causes and conditions, it doesn’t alleviate you completely of all responsibility, but it puts it in a larger perspective.

I think a clearer example, easier to understand, is let’s say we are in an unhealthy relationship with somebody; that you’re constantly arguing with your partner and you’re both really abusing each other verbally and psychologically. And you’re not able to handle it. So the best strategy here is to separate, to leave the person. That’s the same strategy as with the bakery. Okay, so you have to break the syndrome by leaving; but then if you’re left with “It was all my fault” or “It was all your fault” and just holding onto that, then you’re not going to recover very easily and you’re quite likely to get into similar patterns in the next relationship.

You don’t have the cake available, so you’re not compulsively eating cakes; you’re compulsively eating something else. You haven’t dealt with the problem. So, when we remove ourself from this unhealthy relationship, then again you have to analyze that “I’m acting this way for a huge spectrum of causes and conditions. The other person is acting this way also for a huge spectrum of causes and conditions on their side and the whole thing is taking place in an environment, in a society, and a time and economic situation that also is arising from a million causes and conditions.” You deconstruct it; it’s not anybody’s specific fault, although we’re responsible for how we act. So, a healthy sense of a conventional “me;” not an inflated sense, that “It’s all my fault” or “It’s all your fault.’

Maybe by leaving this unhealthy relationship actually we don’t solve the problem at all because he haven’t kind of solved it with this one particular person and then by retreating from this relationship maybe we’ll engage in the next one, which will have a similar pattern, and in this way we will not have solved the situation.

That’s why I was saying that when we take this timeout, when we remove ourselves, we use that time to analyze and to try to understand the actual reality of what was going on; and what was going on was dependently arising on an enormous number of causes and conditions, and not just because “You’re a terrible person” or “I’m no good” or “I was always right” – whatever sort of inflation we have about ourselves and the other person. So, you don’t just run away and then run into another relation. You use that space to analyze, to try to understand. You work on yourself.

Now, we could work on ourselves and then we have to decide do we want to go back into that relationship or not. There are some relationships that you could leave and there are no ties; but there are other relationships like with your parents or with your children that you can’t just walk out on forever. I mean you could, but that’s not really very nice. So, it depends. But if we do need to go back and re-engage with the person, just because we’ve worked on ourselves doesn’t mean that they’ve worked on themselves. So you’re going to have to deal with it.

Or I think of the example of a friend of mine who was working in an office, and the office was really quite chaotic and the pressures were horrible and he couldn’t take it. He was getting very upset – panic attacks and all of that. So, he left that job. Well, now he’s taking timeout and can work on himself; but if he goes back he doesn’t have to go back to that same job. There’s no obligation to go back. But he shouldn’t expect that he’s going to go to another office and another job and that it’s going to be wonderful. It’s not; there are going to be different pressures. So one needs to be realistic in terms of, as Shantideva said, when you’re dealing with others, everybody is childish, everybody is infantile, and you need to be able to deal with that with great patience.

Therefore we work on developing all the qualities that are necessary for patience and perseverance, understanding of others, etc. because the world is filled with infantile people. That is a cause for developing compassion. But to develop compassion we have to have a very strong healthy sense of “me”: that “I have the self-confidence and strength to be able to actually help others to deal with their suffering.” But it very much has to be on the basis of a healthy sense of “me,” not an inflated “I’m going to save the world” type of complex.

Arising of Tendencies and Mental Factors

Where are thoughts coming from? Because for example in the case of this famous example of the bakery again, there can be one thought that’s “I can buy this cake to satisfy my own kind of desire.” The other thought could be that “I can buy the cake to make somebody else happy.” And the third thought, unrelated, that “The sky is blue.” And so where do the thoughts come from and which type of thinking process will kick in? How will that be determined?

Oh now we get into a more complex analysis of causality. We speak in Buddhism of what I like to translate as “tendencies.” It’s literally the word “seeds,” but we shouldn’t think in terms of physical seeds planted in our mind; I mean that is a simplistic analogy for farmers to be able to understand. So, we have built up, over beginningless time, so many different tendencies. So there are karmic tendencies from our behavior, and they repeat in feeling like repeating a type of behavior, literally the wish to repeat it. They also ripen into feeling happy or unhappy; and they ripen into experiencing other people acting in similar ways toward us.

If you’re going to buy the cake, first the thought will come up to want to buy the cake, and then the wish to actually go into the store and buy it. So I mean there’s a sequence and the thought will come first – the mental impulse of the compulsiveness of the thought to think to go into the store and buy it. But all our various mental factors are also going to work on the system of tendencies. The mental factor of generosity or the mental factor of greed – longing desire. All of these are not going to ripen continuously non-stop; only sometimes.

So, each of these – the tendency for the mental factor of generosity to arise; the tendency for the mental factor of greed to arise; the mental factor of just mental wandering about meaningless things to arise from meaningless chatter and so on – each of these will have a different strength depending on how often we’ve done it and with what intensity etc. There’s thirteen different variables that affect the strength of these things.

There are many factors that are involved and conditions that are involved for why a particular tendency will ripen at this time. There has to be a condition for it. So the condition could be something that is totally impersonal like the weather: it’s raining so you want to get in out of the rain and the closest thing is the bakery store. So you go into the bakery store. That’s a condition, and then you see the cake so you really want to have it; otherwise you would have just gone by.

I was laughing because I was thinking of my own situation. I had a very strong Tibetan connection karmically, and I love Tibetan food – particularly momos, these meat dumplings. And I move to Berlin and I move into a friend’s apartment that I didn’t even see before I moved in. There was an opportunity to share this apartment with a friend temporarily and that’s what I decided to do, sight unseen. And you know what kind of neighborhood I moved into? A neighborhood in which there were four restaurants serving Tibetan food, Tibetan momos, within walking distance of that apartment. How did that happen? You know, not just one; four! I mean it’s outrageous. So, if that is not an example of ripening of some sort of karma so that this experience of continuing to have Tibetan food…. I mean there’s even a restaurant that serves Tibetan tea. It’s outrageous.

So, my point being that whether to go into the store, whether generosity kicks in and I think to buy the cake for somebody else, or just mental wandering kicks in – everything depends on the strength of each of these tendencies for that type of mental factor or thinking process plus whatever circumstances are going to be there externally to contribute. Whatever happens dependently arises from the combination of all of these things, and what is stronger and what is weaker.


Sometimes choices are determined by intuition; so, what is intuition in Buddhism?

Intuition is basically what do you feel like, isn’t it? It just sort of arises, and with the intuition usually there’s some level of certainty depending on how much we trust intuition. There are various things that we can have intuition about; that’s not so easy to analyze. We could have intuition of how to fix something. There’s something wrong with the computer, so sort of intuitively I know which buttons to press. But that really is basically coming from previous experience with other type of machines and mechanisms, isn’t it? We might not know specifically how to deal with this problem with the computer, but intuitively you figure it out because of knowledge and experience with other things that are similar.

There are certain actions that you do that are deliberated beforehand – this is in the presentation of karma – and others that are not deliberated. “Not deliberated” would be “I didn’t think: well what do I do? Do I do this or that?” You just do it, so you would say intuitively you do it. It wasn’t deliberated or thought about and worked out consciously beforehand. But obviously it is based on previous experience.

But when we have an intuitive feeling that it’s going to rain – intuition about the future, future events – that’s a little bit more difficult to analyze. You know, “I have an intuition that you’re going to call me,” and then you call me – something like that. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that. I’ve experienced that; I was thinking of somebody and then they call. So, obviously we don’t inflate ourselves to be like something out of Star Wars – “Use the Force, Luke; now you will call me!” I mean we’re not doing that – using the Force, you know, that I’m causing them to call me.

But I don’t know; I don’t know where that is coming from because sometimes it’s reliable, sometimes it’s not reliable. Is it based on some sort of inference? Is it based on some sort of telepathic link? I don’t know; but certainly don’t think that I’m causing the other person to call me – not at our level. You can influence – if you have super highly developed concentration and powers you do have the ability to influence others; but certainly we’re not at that level.

Sometimes when you communicate intensively with some person, it happens that you call each other at the same time even without prior agreement on that. It seems that certain persons get into such a synchronized mode of operating that it can happen almost naturally.

Well, what is that? You know, you train two monkeys; you can get them to do the same thing at the same time. It’s some sort of training, isn’t it? If you’re in the habit of communicating a lot and chatting and so on, the odds are that at some point you’re going to communicate simultaneously. That statistically will happen. To get into this New Age, “Well we’re on the same vibe” and this type of thing I think is a bit of inflation. But those things do happen. We’re so familiar with each other that odds are we will feel like communicating at the same time. It’s not unusual.

I’m a big fan of what one of my teachers always emphasizes, which is “nothing special.” We called at the same time – nothing special. Don’t make a big deal out of it; “Ohh, magic! We’re meant for each other” – all of that.

It seems so natural...

Right, it seems so natural, and then nothing special. So, just flow with it. The problem of course is when we then expect it; and if you expect that it’s always going to happen and then it doesn’t, then there’s a problem there. So, “nothing special” is very helpful here.