Developing Self-Dignity and Willpower

Review: Precious Human Life

We have been 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. We have seen how thinking about the precious human rebirth and realizing how fortunate we actually are leads to a very positive attitude toward ourselves. We understand how rare it is that we have all these supportive features available to us – the temporary freedom, or respite, from worse states and so many accessible opportunities enriching our lives, particularly when we compare ourselves to the vast majority of population. If it is difficult to think in terms of the six realms of beings, or to take them seriously, then at least we can compare ourselves to all other forms of life on this planet. Even from this initial perspective, we see that, in fact, our situation is quite rare. 

From this viewpoint, we develop a great sense of appreciation. We’re very grateful for the fact that we have this precious human life now and, if we believe in past lives, for the fact that in previous lives we built up the causes for it by our constructive behavior. 

We value our precious human life very highly and we realize that it is not going to last forever. We will grow old and we may get very sick as well. We certainly will die. After we are dead, if we think in terms of the eternally existent “me,” then we’re going to continue in some form with some ability to further experience things. Perhaps all of this is a bit unknown right now, but it certainly is possible that it could be an awful lot worse.

Other Types of Life Forms and Levels of Happiness and Unhappiness

When we think of the various other types of life forms that Buddhism asserts, this is always a difficult issue. It’s often hard to take the subject seriously. But the way that I approach this is to again think in terms of mental activity. “Me” is an imputation on 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. There will be varying types of sensory consciousness, different capacities of mental consciousness and varying intensities of mental factors, particularly levels of happiness and unhappiness. The boundaries of what we are able to experience with each life form – whether we’re talking about physical sensations, sight, hearing, or feelings such as happiness and unhappiness, etc. – all of these factors will be correlated to the physical hardware that we have: our brains, nervous systems, sense organs and so on.

We can understand this by using a simple example. With the brain of a human we can comprehend so much more than with the brain of a fly, obviously; although, both of us have brains. If we had a fly’s brain, for example, the hardware that would be available to us wouldn’t get us terribly far, would it? That said, the eyes of different types of animals allow some to see in the dark. With human eyes, we can’t really see in the dark. Eagle eyes can see very far; whereas, human eyes can’t see as far. Further, a dog has far greater ability to smell at greater distances than a human. In fact, many animals have a greater range of hearing than humans and some have different senses, like the ability to sense electric fields and magnetic fields. It’s quite clear that the scope of what we can experience is very much dependent on the physical basis, the hardware of our sensory apparatus.

It follows that differences should also occur in terms of physical sensations as well, in terms of experiencing pleasure and pain. With a human body, after a certain level of pain we become unconscious. We’re not able to experience beyond the capacity of what the body will tolerate. Also, by extension then, the feelings of happiness and unhappiness are likewise restricted. 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. With happiness, we want it to continue. We don’t want to be parted from it. With unhappiness, we really want it to end.

Might the capacity for unhappiness and happiness also be proportional or dependent on the physical hardware we have for experiencing life, like our brains and our eyes? This becomes quite interesting to analyze when we try to compare levels of unhappiness. For instance, we can compare the mental suffering of somebody with Down syndrome, not greatly aware of their situation, with someone who is highly intelligent, over analyzes, and suffers from terrible depression and nervous breakdowns. It’s always said in the teachings that mental suffering is far greater than physical suffering.

With this in mind, I think that the spectrum of the level of happiness and unhappiness that we could experience is quite different, depending on the type of physical body and the type of life form that we have. By extension, then, we could include the entire spectrums of happy/unhappy and pleasure/pain and imagine that there could be physical bases that would have the capacity to experience further portions of these spectrums than what a human body can support, for instance more pain. 

Let’s imagine that after we die, we’re going to become nothing, if that’s what we believe. The thought, “Now I am dead,” and the unknown of what that will actually be like is fairly frightening. When we are nothing, is it depressing? What is it? One starts to wonder what the characteristics are of experiencing “nothing?” However, “nothing” is happening.  When “nothing” is happening, don’t we feel pretty bored? We’re actually unhappy when nothing is happening. Now, imagine nothing happening for eternity and how bored we would be. We’d be terribly unhappy. 

I don’t know if that makes any sense or if that’s just joking around, but I think that this helps to develop a sense that “After I die, I want to avoid things being worse than they actually are now.” We don’t want to be stuck in “nothing” forever. If we follow the Buddhist teachings, we certainly don’t want to be reborn with a type of physical basis with which we will have an awful lot more pain, suffering and more problems. In addition, we don’t want a physical basis in which we will not have the ability to continue on the spiritual path.

Safe Direction

Consequently, we develop a healthy sense of fear of what might happen to us after we die. In this regard, it’s important to understand that there are two types of fear. First, the feeling that there is nothing that can be done, that we are helpless and hopeless, is a horrible type of fear, very difficult to bear. Second, a healthy sense of fear is when we know there is something that we can do to avoid a terrible situation, and therefore we’re careful. For instance, when driving a car, we fear getting into an accident, and so we are careful about the way we drive. If we don’t care whether we have an accident or not, if we’re not afraid of having an accident, we’re going to be reckless. It could be an absolute disaster.

When we speak about fear being one of the causes for refuge, or “safe direction,” we are referring to this healthy sense of fear. First of all, it is a fear that is based on a healthy sense of the conventional “me.” We care about what happens to us and don’t want to be in any horrible situation in which we can’t make further progress. We see that there is a way to avoid that terrible future and therefore we want to go in that direction. It’s important to understand that without that healthy sense of “me,” we would never think to have a positive and safe direction in our life, which is signified by taking so-called “refuge.”

If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t even make an effort to avoid suffering. We see this type of attitude with people who won’t give up smoking no matter what, “I don’t care if I get cancer. I don’t care what happens. I want to smoke.” 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 and real embarrassment. However, if we take all of this seriously, that we have a precious human life and we don’t want to lose it, then we would really want to prolong it as long as possible. Further, we would want to use this opportunity before it’s lost and try to avoid losing further opportunities in the future. This kind of mentality is all based on a healthy sense of “me.”

Now, there is something that we can do to avoid worse situations in the future. This is to put the safe direction of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in our lives. What is that direction? What are the actual Three Jewels? There are several levels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, but if we look at the deepest level, then the Dharma Jewel is referring to the true stopping, or true cessation, of all forms of suffering and to the true path, or true pathway minds, the true levels of understanding that will bring about the true stopping of problems so that they will never recur. The deepest Dharma Jewel is the third and fourth Noble Truths. That’s the direction that we want to go in. We want to go in the direction of trying to attain a true stopping of the true causes of suffering and true problems, and we want to attain the true understanding, or true pathway of mind, to understand exactly what will bring about that true stopping. Overall, this is the positive direction we want to head in. 

The Buddhas are those who have actually attained this cessation of suffering in full and have taught and shown us the way to achieve it ourselves. The Arya Sangha refers to those who have attained these true stoppings and true understandings in part. Since these aryas are all at different levels, they serve as very helpful examples because they give us encouragement to see that attaining the level of a Buddha is something that we work on in stages. They help make it seem more attainable and provide us with the support we need on the path.  

Those are the Three Jewels and that’s the direction that we want to go in. We care about ourselves; we take ourselves seriously and therefore we want to head in this direction that makes it possible to avoid suffering, and we actually see that it’s possible. We want to be happy. We don’t want to be unhappy, so we try to go in that direction. Think about this.


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. The meditations that are recommended in some of the lam-rim texts are very helpful for this. 

We meditate by imagining that we are falling off a cliff into the lower realms, into a more horrible rebirth and how awful that would be. Then, if we know that there is a way to save ourselves by opening a parachute or whatever, we would certainly want to do that. 

Next, we imagine that we are just on the verge of falling. We’re right on the edge of the cliff about to fall. We’re really frightened that we are going to fall, and we wish that we’d taken the time to strengthen our core muscles so that we could keep our balance and not fall. 

Then, we imagine that we’re on a conveyor belt and it’s heading straight toward the edge of the cliff and is going to drop us, and we think how strongly we want to be able to jump off the conveyor belt.

These are quite powerful images that we can use to elicit a sense of fear, calling upon very basic instincts. It’s the survival instinct to survive and not fall into a fire. 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 becomes very fundamental within us. As a result of thinking like this, depending on our belief system, we would really want to remove the causes for worse rebirths, for an eternal damnation in hell, or for dying with regrets and the fear of passing into an unknown nothing.

Please think about all of this. “I want to avoid worse rebirths and to do that I need to avoid and get rid of the causes for worse rebirths. I want to take some preventive measures.” In fact, the translation of the Sanskrit word “Dharma” literally means “preventive measures.” 



In order to head in that safe direction, the first thing that we want to do is remove the causes for gross suffering, known as the suffering of suffering. We want to remove the causes for unhappiness and the experience of terrible rebirths, and all sorts of unpleasant things that could happen to us. According to the teachings in Buddhism on karma, if we are experiencing that type of gross suffering, it’s the result of destructive behavior. This is the first law of karma.

When we speak about karma, I’d like to point out that we are not talking about actions, although the Tibetan word for “karma,” las, is the colloquial Tibetan word for “action.” When Tibetans teach in English, they will very often translate the word “karma” as action. However, it doesn’t mean action. If it did, think of what would follow from that. If we wanted to attain complete eradication of all karma and if karma just meant action, all that we would have to do is stop doing anything and then we would be liberated. Karma certainly doesn’t mean this.

Taking something to a possible absurd conclusion is another method of analysis that is often used in Buddhism. This is when we see if there are any absurd conclusions that follow from an assertion. For instance, if karma is action, then to get rid of all karma means that we would have to get rid of all actions. If we got rid of all actions, would we be liberated? No. Therefore, the assertion that karma means action is incorrect. It’s a problem of translation.

What karma actually refers to is compulsiveness. There’s a compulsive aspect to our behavior, compulsive because of the strong instincts and tendencies that have been built up by our disturbing emotions and confusion. Therefore, we act in an uncontrollable manner, like someone who compulsively eats, or compulsively taps his or her fingers, or someone who is a compulsive liar.

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

The two are closely related. “Impulsive” means doing or saying whatever comes to our head, without any forethought. “Compulsive” means doing or saying or thinking something from an irresistible urge, so it includes compulsive worrying. “Obsessive,” by the way, means continually doing, saying or thinking something that preoccupies us and prevents us from doing otherwise. So, all three, actually, are closely related. 

“Compulsive” here, when we talk about karma, can refer to not only negative behavior, but also to positive. For instance, we could be a compulsive perfectionist who’s very neurotic about having to be perfect and good, or who compulsively cleans their house, or compulsively washes their hands. This kind of behavior is based on a big, big “me” who has to be in control of everything. These are positive actions. There’s nothing negative about cleaning house or washing hands, but in this case, it is totally out of control and very neurotic. It could also be compulsively correcting others, things like this. 

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

It fits with the definition of karma and that’s important. We first learn the definition and then we try to figure out what it is talking about. When we feel like lying or feel like going to the refrigerator, these desires ripen from karmic tendencies. We feel like doing it and we want to do it. Karma, then, is the compulsive urge that then draws us into the action. First, we feel like doing something, and then the compulsion draws us into the action, and we do it.


The classic presentation of karma in the initial scope of the lam-rim is that the suffering of suffering and unhappiness and its cause is our unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. We just don’t know that if we’re suffering and unhappy, it has arisen from our destructive behavior. Either, we just don’t know that, or we have an incorrect view that our unhappiness came randomly from nothing or from external sources. Here, we work to get rid of this first level of unawareness or ignorance, our unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. We are not referring here to cause and effect as in when we kick a ball, it moves over there. We’re talking about cause and effect in terms of our behavior and what we experience.

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. Therefore, 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. 

Reasons for Not Acting Destructively — Mental Factors Involved

In Berlin, I’ve been teaching Tsongkhapa’s Lam-rim chen-mo (A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path). We’ve been going through it very slowly, once a week for more than four years 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?”

Please examine this for a moment. If you don’t cheat, bully or lie, why not? Is it because you are afraid of worse rebirths and unhappiness that will follow from these actions and therefore you refrain? Be honest. Why don’t you cheat and hurt others?


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

Would it be okay to behave badly 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, you do have some belief then in terms of cause and effect.

Also, there is some guilt because I’ll feel bad about myself.

“Because I’ll feel bad about myself.” This is similar to what some of my students responded.

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

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

If it is quite sincere that we don’t want consequences or future problems and so on, that desire fits perfectly with the Dharma teachings. However, what I found personally, and from my students, the answer usually was “It just doesn’t feel right.” It doesn’t feel right to cheat, lie, or be a nasty person. It’s a very simple, but profound answer. We feel uneasy.

Now, we need to bring in the conceptual framework from the teachings on the fifty-one mental factors and see which one represents this feeling. How would we describe the phenomenon of “It just doesn’t feel right?” There is one mental factor called “a sense of moral self-dignity (ngo-tsha shes-pa).” We care about what happens to us and how our actions affect us. It’s a sense of dignity and self-worth. We think enough of ourselves that we wouldn’t stoop that low to act that way. We have more self-dignity. It doesn’t feel right to act in this low way. We have too much respect for ourselves and that’s not the type of person that we want to be.

Vasubandhu, in his Abhidharmkosha (Treasury of Special Topics of Knowledge), says that this mental factor accompanies all constructive behavior. We act destructively when we don’t have this sense of self-dignity. We don’t care about how our behavior reflects on ourselves. It is not so much what other people think of us; it’s what we think of ourselves that actually influences our behavior. This means that with a healthy sense of a conventional “me,” we respect ourselves. From this, we can see that as we progress through the graded stages of lam-rim, we are developing a more and more positive attitude toward ourselves. Such an attitude is what I’m describing when using the Western term “a healthy sense of self.” Think about this.


The second mental factor that Vasubandhu mentions as accompanying all constructive behavior is perhaps much more relevant in an Asian context. We have to examine, though, how relevant it is for us. This mental factor is care for how our actions reflect on others (khrel-yod). Asians in general typically don’t think of themselves just as individuals, but as members of a family. The way that a person acts reflects on the honor of the entire family. Therefore, they don’t want to bring shame or bad reputation to this larger unit that they belong to. Loyalty to their family is very important. That loyalty can extend to even larger units that they identify with, like their village, their caste, their country, their religion. The issue is how does our behavior reflect on others? If we care about this, then we would also refrain from acting destructively. According to Vasubandhu, this concern is included in the state of mind of refraining from acting destructively, and in part it is how “constructive behavior” is defined.

In Western society, with so much emphasis on the individual, I wonder how omnipresent this mental factor is in constructive behavior. We need to examine ourselves. Is there a larger sense of this healthy conventional “me” that would include our whole family? Basically, is there a larger unit that we feel is part of our identity? I think it is an individual matter. For instance, a woman might consider how individual actions reflect on women as a whole. She could think if a woman acts like this or like that, then people will have this terribly low opinion of women. Therefore, she would feel strongly that women really have to act in a way that will bring societal respect to women so that they’re treated equally. 

With this mental factor, we would be concerned about what people might think of how Buddhists act. What would people think of a small country like Latvia? For example, if the world thought that this is an insignificant tiny little country, people here could be motivated by this consideration and strive to be successful and innovative, or to do something inventive, proper and praiseworthy, as it would reflect well on their country as a whole. 

In any case, what we develop with these two mental factors is a sense of responsibility for the way we act, the way we speak and the way we think. This builds up a healthy sense of “me.” We don’t want to be unhappy. We want to be happy and not just have immediate gratification, but also happiness in the future. We’re willing to postpone immediate gratification in order to ensure future happiness. A more modern example would be saving for our old age, or only buying what we can afford and not buying on credit so that we don’t have to worry about not being able to pay it back or losing everything. 

It’s the sense of responsibility based on a healthy sense of “me” that causes us to refrain from acting destructively. This sense of responsibility comes from knowing, firstly, that we will experience the consequences of our behavior. We have to understand that we feel worse when we cheat and lie, and when we cause trouble to others. This occurs not just now, but in the future as well. Simply put, we feel bad.

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


Exercising Self-Control

The whole strategy in this initial scope of the lam-rim is to exercise self-control. When we feel like acting destructively, we understand that it will be self-destructive and that it will cause more problems. So, we exercise self-control not to act out what we feel like doing. If we’ve ever tried to go on a diet, we know all about this. We go on a diet, thinking, “I want to lose weight,” for whatever reason. It might be for a personal reason, our health, to look better, whatever. Just because we decide to go on a diet, however, doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop feeling like eating. Of course, we will still feel like eating. It’s the ripening of previous karmic habits that, for example, when we walk past the bakery and see a cake, we feel like we would love to have a piece of that cake. This desire is going to come up automatically, as it’s the ripening of a karmic tendency. We aren’t going to be able to get rid of such feelings at this stage. It’s important not to feel badly about this. The point is to exercise self-control at that moment when we feel like going into the store and buying the cake. Just don’t do it. Don’t compulsively buy it or constantly go to the refrigerator.

This is not easy, is it? But what does self-control depend on? It doesn’t just depend on discriminating awareness between what is helpful and what’s harmful. We know that “If I act destructively, it’s going to lead to problems,” so we are able to discriminate correctly. But, often, we also say, “I know that, but I can’t control myself.” That happens, doesn’t it? We know that we shouldn’t smoke and we’re trying to give up, but we still feel like smoking. That feeling, that wish, is going to come up. Therefore, in addition to discriminating and knowing what is beneficial and what is harmful, we need this healthy sense of “me.” We need this self-respect, this positive feeling toward ourselves so that on this basis we can exercise the willpower 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 it is very true that we’re only going to be able to exercise self-control and willpower in a very positive way if we have a sense of self-dignity and this positive attitude toward ourselves. Otherwise, if we don’t care at all, then we don’t exercise any self-control. We don’t have any willpower. It’s very interesting to analyze, what will strengthen our self-control and willpower?

We have to be a little bit careful because, although we’re building up a healthy sense of this conventional “me” so that we’re better able to exercise self-control and so on, it could also reinforce an inflated sense of self. Accordingly, while we are building up our conventional “me” and have already put some effort into this, we can now start to watch out for the inflated sense of “me.” The inflated sense of “me” is the self that feels like, “I should have been able to control myself, but I didn’t, so I’m weak, I’m guilty, I’m no good.” That’s an inflated sense of “me” – a “me” that should have been at a stage of development that we are still not able to reach. This is like a person who is constantly self-policing to control every behavior and, because of that, becomes completely stiff. This is unhealthy. When they slip up and lose self-control, they really feel guilty, thinking that, “I should have been able to control myself.” They beat themselves up psychologically.

When we examine the teachings and the examples, we could think how easily we could go to this extreme. I’m thinking of the example of Ben Gungyal (’Ban Gung-rgyal’Phen rKun-rgal), a renowned Tibetan master, who kept a collection of white and black stones representing all positive and negative thoughts, or all the constructive and destructive things that he did. During the course of each day, he would set aside a black stone for each negative thought he had and a white stone for each constructive thought. At the end of the day, if there were more black than white stones, he would scold himself and resolve to do better in the future. And if there were more white than black, he would congratulate himself and still resolve to do better in the future. This kind of action could become quite dualistic, couldn’t it?

However, this type of self-examination at the end of the day is very helpful, especially if we are not aware of what’s going on in our lives. How often are we acting destructively or constructively? It is helpful to become more aware of this. Still, we need to be careful not to go to this extreme dualistic view of a solid “me” that’s the policeman and this “me” here who is on trial. One great master said that if we examine our lives honestly to see how many times we have gotten angry or have been nasty and unkind, and how many times we have been really kind and done something beneficial for others, with such a list it would be very clear where we’re going in our future lives.

Examining our behavior, then, is to motivate us to do something about it if we find it predominately destructive. But, this development of self-control and willpower, based on discriminating awareness and a correct evaluation of how we’ve been acting, needs to be done with a healthy sense of “me.” Watch out for this inflated sense of “me.” 

Actually, though, in this initial sequence of developing a healthy sense of self through the lam-rim, exercising self-control and willpower will undoubtedly be based on this sense of an inflated “me.” We will feel like, “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.” In the beginning, it’s quite natural that we will approach it with a degree of an inflated “me.” That’s how we start and then we have to refine the way that we exercise ethical self-discipline.


Analyzing Karmic Tendencies

In thinking about the bakery example, once we are near the bakery smelling and seeing the cake, we can’t do anything at that point. We give in. What are the strategies of how we can approach this? Maybe we should choose a different route or do something else. What would be your suggestion?

In Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, Togme Zangpo talks about when, as an aspiring bodhisattva, we might need to leave our homeland. The verse goes:

(2) A bodhisattva’s practice is to leave our homeland, where attachment to the side of friends tosses us like water; anger toward the side of enemies burns us like fire; and naivety so that we forget what’s to be adopted and abandoned cloaks us in darkness.

In other words, when a situation we’re in is too strong in terms of its acting as a condition or circumstances for disturbing emotions to arise, then, if we can’t handle it, we should avoid such a situation. It doesn’t solve the problem, but at least it gives us a temporary timeout to be able to work on the problem.

When we have this type of situation and then allow for a timeout, we avoid what is going to trigger our compulsive behavior and our disturbing emotions. However, then we have to start to analyze. How do we work on the situation? We try to find a strategy by analyzing to see what’s really going on. This analysis of the many causes and conditions for our compulsive behavior in this type of situation is very helpful here. We need to see that it arose not only from karmic causes, but also from many, many conditions.

There are many conditions that are going to trigger this karmic tendency to ripen to want to over-eat, to buy that cake, or to do similar types of actions. One of those conditions, of course, is the external stimulus of the cake being right there, and somebody offering it to us. This situation makes it even worse. If we analyze, we see that there are many, many other causes and conditions that are involved with why we feel like eating the cake. There’s also social pressure, such as if everybody is having cake and it’s being served, then we feel we should also have a piece. We could consider our diet on the one hand, but we’re hungry and nothing else is available. There could also be the economic situation that cakes are now more available here in Latvia than they were in Soviet times. There can be many, many conditions that are going on here besides just the karmic tendency to over-eat or the strong tendency of longing desire for sense gratification.

By analyzing in this way, it helps us to overcome the obstacle of this inflated sense of “me” – the feeling that “I should be in control, but I’m not in control. I feel so guilty.” When such thoughts obsessively arise, take a timeout from walking past the bakery. However, during that time out, don’t just feel bad. It’s a time to work on ourselves. This timeout is not a punishment. That would be a very unhealthy way of looking at it, as if we are not good enough to be able to deal with walking past the bakery, so we have to take a different route. It’s very low self-esteem that’s involved with this kind of thinking.

Instead, we have to work a little bit on deconstructing this inflated sense of “me.” It’s not that it’s all because we are not good enough to have self-control. We work on it and see that being able to exercise control as well as having the strong feeling to eat are both based on so many causes and conditions. Because they’re based on so many causes and conditions, however, doesn’t relieve us completely of all responsibility; it just puts our situation into a larger perspective.

An easier example to understand might be when we are in an unhealthy relationship. We’re constantly arguing with our partner and we’re both really abusing each other verbally and psychologically. We’re just not able to handle it. The best strategy here is to separate and to leave the person. This is the same strategy as with the bakery. We have to break the syndrome by leaving. But then, if we’re left with feeling, “It was all my fault,” or “It was all your fault,” and just hold onto that, then we’re not going to recover very easily and we’re quite likely to get into similar patterns in the next relationship. For instance, we don’t have cake available, so we’re not compulsively eating cakes; however, we’re compulsively eating something else. Obviously, we haven’t dealt with the problem of compulsive eating. 

When we leave this unhealthy relationship then, again, we have to analyze that we were acting this way in the relationship because of a huge spectrum of causes and conditions. The other person was also acting this way for a huge spectrum of causes and conditions and the whole thing was taking place in an environment, in a society, and a time and economic situation that was also arising from a million causes and conditions. We need to deconstruct the entire situation. Although we’re responsible for how we act, it’s not anybody’s specific fault. We need 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 we don’t actually solve the problem at all, because we haven’t kind of solved the problem with this particular person. By retreating from this relationship maybe we’ll engage in the next one in 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 need to use that time to analyze and try to understand the actual reality of the situation. 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.” These are all inflations that we have about ourselves and the other person. Of course, we don’t just run away and then immediately go into another relationship. We use that space to analyze and try to understand. Basically, we need to work on ourselves.

Now, we could work on ourselves and then decide whether we want to go back into that relationship or not. There are some relationships that we could leave and there would be no ties left. However, there are other relationships, like with our parents or our children, that we can’t just walk out on forever. I mean we could, but that’s not really very nice. Clearly, it depends. However, it’s important to know that if we do need to re-engage with the person, then just because we’ve worked on ourselves, that doesn’t mean they’ve done that as well. We’re still going to have to deal with the problems that existed in the relationship that came from their side.

In another example, a friend of mine was working in an office that was quite chaotic. The pressures were horrible and he couldn’t take it. He was getting very upset, experiencing panic attacks and so on. So, he left that job. Now he’s taking timeout and can work on himself. If he goes back to that field he was in, there’s no obligation to go back to that same job. However, he shouldn’t expect that another office or another job would be completely wonderful. It’s not. There are going to be different pressures. As Shantideva said, we need to be realistic when dealing with others. Everybody stuck in samsara is infantile, and we need to be able to deal with this fact with great patience.

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

Arising of Tendencies and Mental Factors

The question is about the thoughts. Where are they coming from? For example, in the case of this famous example of the bakery again, there can be one thought to buy this cake to satisfy my own kind of desire. The other thought could be that we can buy the cake to make somebody else happy. The third thought, unrelated, is that the sky is blue. Where do the thoughts come from and what determines which type of thinking process will kick in? 

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 for “seeds,” but we shouldn’t think in terms of physical seeds planted in our mind. That is a simplistic analogy for farmers to be able to understand. Actually, over beginningless time, we have built up so many different tendencies. There are karmic tendencies from our behavior, and they ripen into having the feeling like repeating a particular type of behavior, literally the wish to repeat it. They also ripen into feeling happy or unhappy, and ripen into experiencing other people acting in similar ways toward us.

If we’re going to buy the cake, first after seeing the cake in the bakery window, the thought will come up of feeling like buying the cake. It is accompanied by longing desire, for example, which arises from its own tendency. Next will come the compelling karmic impulse that draws us into thinking actually to go in and buy it – there’s still longing desire for the cake. Once we decide actually to buy it, next will come the feeling to go into the store and then the compelling karmic impulse that draws us into the action of entering the store and so on, step by step, all still with longing desire for the cake. Like this, there’s a sequence, and many different causes and conditions can arise that will affect each step.

There are many other mental factors that may affect what we think and what we do. And all of them arise from their own tendencies and will be triggered by many changing variables. There’s the mental factor of generosity, or the mental factor of greed, or of longing desire. The tendencies for these mental factors do not ripen continuously, only sometimes, depending on varying causes and conditions. In addition, there are thirteen different variables, such as the frequency of what built up these tendencies, that affect the strength of what ripens from both the karmic tendencies and the tendencies of the various mental factors. The feeling to go into the bakery and buy the cake and the longing desire for the cake may be weak or strong.

As previously discussed, there are many factors and conditions that are involved in why a particular tendency will ripen at a particular time. There has to be a condition for it; for example, something that is totally impersonal like the weather. It’s raining, so we want to get out of the rain and the closest place is the bakery, and so we go into the bakery. That’s the condition that triggers the wish to go into the bakery. Then, once inside, we see the cake and that triggers the longing desire and wish to have a piece. Otherwise, without the rain, we would have just gone by and never have entered the store.

I’m laughing because I’m thinking of my own situation. I have a very strong Tibetan connection karmically, and I love Tibetan food, particularly momos, meat dumplings. Many years ago, I moved to Berlin into a friend’s apartment, sight unseen. There was an opportunity to share this apartment with a friend and that’s what I decided to do. What kind of neighborhood did I happen to move into? A neighborhood in which there were four restaurants serving Tibetan food with momos, all within walking distance of that apartment. How did that happen? Not just one restaurant but four! I mean it’s outrageous. If that is not an example of the ripening of some sort of karmic potential to perpetuate this particular experience of eating Tibetan food, then what is? 

The point is that whether it’s to go into the bakery, whether generosity kicks in and we think of buying the cake for someone, or if only mental wandering kicks in, everything depends on the strength of each of these tendencies for that type of mental factor or thinking process to occur. It also depends on whatever external circumstances are there to further contribute to the situation. Whatever happens dependently arises from the combination of all of these things, as well as which tendencies are stronger and what are weaker.


Sometimes choices are determined by intuition. What is intuition in Buddhism?

Intuition is basically what do we feel like, isn’t it? It just sort of arises, and with intuition usually there’s some level of certainty depending on how much we trust our intuition. There are various things that we can have intuition about, and that’s not so easy to analyze. For example, we could have intuition about how to fix something. There’s something wrong with our computer, so sort of intuitively we know which buttons to press. However, this 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 our computer, but intuitively we figure it out because of previous knowledge and experience with other similar things.

The teachings on karma differentiate between actions that we do that are deliberated beforehand and others that are not deliberated – things that we just do. We would say intuitively that we just do them. It wasn’t deliberated, thought about or worked out consciously beforehand. But, obviously, even unplanned actions are based on previous experience.

When we have an intuitive feeling that it’s going to rain or intuition about future events, it’s a bit more difficult to analyze why this happens. For example, we have an intuition that someone is going to call and then they call us, something like that. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this. I’ve experienced that, thinking of somebody and then they call. Obviously, we don’t inflate ourselves to be like something out of Star Wars as in, “Use the Force, Luke; now you will call me!” I mean we’re not responsible for causing the person to call us.

I don’t know where this type of intuition is coming from, because sometimes it’s reliable, and sometimes it’s not. Is it based on some sort of inference? Or is it based on some sort of telepathic connection? I don’t know. Certainly, I don’t think that I’m causing the other person to call me. It is possible to influence others if we have super highly developed concentration and powers. But certainly, we’re not at this 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.

If we’re in the habit of communicating a lot with someone, chatting and so on, the odds are that at some point we’re going to communicate simultaneously. Yes, that statistically will happen. To get into this New Age sense that we’re on the same vibe, I think is a bit of inflation. Yet 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. It’s not magic! It’s not a sign that we’re meant for each other and all of that.

It seems so natural.

It may seem so natural and still, it’s nothing special. Just flow with it. The problem of course is when we expect it. If we expect that it’s always going to happen and then it doesn’t, then there’s a problem there. So, thinking “nothing special” is very helpful.

OK, let’s end for now. In the next session, we’ll continue with the intermediate and advanced scopes.