If we want to understand what Buddhism is all about and how it applies to our daily lives, a good place to look is the connotation of the traditional term used for the Buddhist teachings and practice: the Dharma. “Dharma” is a Sanskrit word that literally means “a preventive measure.” It is something that we do in order to avoid problems. If we understand that, we understand the intention behind everything that Buddha taught.
To have any interest in taking preventive measures, we need to see that there are problems in life. That actually takes a lot of courage. Many people do not take themselves or their lives seriously. They work very hard all day long and then distract themselves with entertainment and so on in the evenings because they’re tired. They don’t really look inwardly to the problems in their lives. Even if they do look at their problems, they do not really want to acknowledge that their lives are not satisfactory because it would be too depressing. It takes courage to really check the quality of our lives and to admit honestly when we find it unsatisfactory.
Unsatisfactory Situations and Their Causes
Of course, there are levels of unsatisfactoriness. We could say, “Sometimes I have bad moods and sometimes things go well, but that’s okay. That’s life.” If we are content with that, fine. If we have some hope that we can make things a little bit better, it leads us to look for a way to do so. In order to find methods to improve the quality of our lives we need to identify the source of our problems. Most people look externally for the source of their problems. “I am having difficulty in my relationship with you because of you! You’re not acting the way I would like you to act.” We may also blame our difficulties on the political or economic situation. According to some schools of psychology, we can look to traumatic events in our childhood as what led us to have the problems that we have. It is very easy to blame our unhappiness on others. Placing the blame on other people or social or economic factors does not really lead to a solution. If we have this conceptual framework, we might be forgiving and it may have some benefit, but most people find that only doing this much has not relieved them of their psychological problems and unhappiness.
Buddhism says that although other people, society, and so on contribute to our problems, they are not really the deepest source of them. To discover the deepest source of our difficulties we need to look within. After all, if we feel unhappy in life, it is a response to our situation. Different people respond to the same situation differently. Even if we just look at ourselves, we find that we respond differently to difficulties from one day to the next. If the source of the problem were just the external situation, we should respond in the same way all the time, but we don’t. There are factors that affect how we respond, such as having a good day at work, but these are only superficial contributing factors. They do not go deeply enough.
If we look, we start to see that our attitudes toward life, ourselves and our situations contribute very much to how we feel. For example, we don’t feel sorry for ourselves all the time, like when we’re having a good day; but when we are not having a good day, the feeling of self-pity recurs. The basic attitudes that we have toward life very much shape how we experience life. If we examine more deeply, we find that our attitudes are based on confusion.
Confusion as the Source of Problems
If we explore confusion, we see that one aspect of it is confusion about behavioral cause and effect. We are confused about what to do or say and about what will happen as a result. We can be very confused about what type of job to get, whether to get married, whether to have children, etc. If we get into a relationship with a person, what will the result be? We don’t know. Our ideas of what will follow from our choices are really just fantasies, based on either wishful thinking or fear and paranoia. We might think that if we get into a deep relationship with a certain person, we will live happily ever after, like in a fairy tale. Or we might be afraid that they will abandon us, and so we keep an emotional distance. If we’re upset in a situation, we think that yelling will make it better. We have a very confused idea about how the other person is going to respond to what we do. We think that if we yell and speak our minds, we will feel better and everything will be all right, but everything will not be all right. We want to know what will happen. We desperately look at astrology or throw coins for The Book of Changes, the I Ching. Why do we do things like that? We want to be in control of what happens.
Buddhism says that a deeper level of confusion is confusion about how we and others exist and about how the world exists. We are confused about the whole issue of control. We think that it’s possible to be totally in control of what happens to us. For instance, we might think that if we don’t let anyone else use our computer, it will never crash. Because of that, we get frustrated when things don’t turn out as we expected. It’s not possible to always be in control. That’s not reality. Reality is very complex. Many things influence what happens, not just what we do. It’s not that we are totally out of control or manipulated by external forces either. We contribute to what happens, but we are not the sole factor that determines what happens.
Because of our confusion and insecurity, we often act destructively without even knowing that it is destructive behavior. This is because we are under the influence of disturbing emotions, disturbing attitudes, and the compulsiveness of our habitual behavior. Not only do we act destructively toward others; we primarily act in self-destructive ways. In other words, we create more problems for ourselves. If we want fewer problems or liberation from our problems, or even further, the ability to help others to get out of their problems as well, we need to acknowledge the source of our limitations.
Ridding Ourselves of Confusion
Let’s say that we can recognize that the source of our problems is confusion. This is not too difficult. Many people reach the point of saying, “I’m really confused. I’m messed up.” Then what? Before we go and spend money on this course or that retreat, we need to consider very seriously whether we really are convinced that it’s possible to get rid of our confusion. If we don’t think it is possible to get rid of confusion, what are we trying to do? If we go only with the hope that it may be possible to get rid of our confusion, it’s not very stable. It’s wishful thinking.
We might think that freedom could come about in several ways. We might think that somebody will save us. It could be a higher, divine figure, such as God, and so we become born-again believers. Alternatively, we may look to a spiritual teacher, a partner, or someone else to save us from our confusion. In such situations, it’s easy to become dependent on the other person and to behave immaturely. We are often so desperate to find someone to save us that we are indiscriminate in whom we turn to. We might choose someone who is not free from confusion himself or herself and who, because of his or her own disturbing emotions and attitudes, takes advantage of our naïve dependency. This is not a stable way to proceed. We cannot look to a spiritual teacher or a relationship to clear up all our confusion. We have to clear up our own confusion.
A relationship with a spiritual teacher or with a partner can provide helpful circumstances, but only when the relationship is a healthy one. When it’s unhealthy, it just makes it worse. It leads to more confusion. In the beginning, we can be in a deep state of denial, thinking that the teacher is perfect, the partner is perfect; but eventually our naivete wears off. When we start to see the weaknesses in the other person and that the other person is not going to save us from all our confusion, we crash. We feel betrayed. Our faith and our trust have been betrayed. That is a terrible feeling! It’s very important to try to avoid that from the beginning. We need to take preventive measures. We need to understand what is possible and what is not. What can a spiritual teacher do and what can a spiritual teacher not do? We take preventive measures to avoid crashing.
We need to develop a state of mind that is free of confusion. The opposite of confusion, understanding, will prevent confusion from arising. Our work in Buddhism is to be introspective and attentive to our attitudes, our disturbing emotions, and our impulsive, compulsive, or neurotic behavior. That means being willing to see things in ourselves that are not so nice, things we would rather deny. When we notice things that are causing our problems or are symptoms of our problems, we need to apply opponents to overcome them. All of this is based on study and meditation. We have to learn to identify disturbing emotions and attitudes and where they come from.
Meditation means that we practice applying the various opponents in a controlled situation so that we become familiar with how to apply them and can then do so in real life. For example, if we get angry with others when they don’t act the way we would like them to, in meditation we think of these situations and try to look at them from a different point of view. The other person is acting in disagreeable ways for many different reasons. He or she is not necessarily acting out of spite because he or she doesn’t love us. In meditation, we try to dissolve such attitudes: “My friend doesn’t love me anymore because he or she didn’t call me.”
If we can practice going through this type of situation with a state of mind that is more relaxed, understanding, and patient, then if the person doesn’t call us for a week, we don’t get so upset. When we start to get upset, we remember that this person is probably very busy and it is egocentric to think that we are the most important person in his or her life. This helps us to cool our emotional upset.
Buddhist Practice Is a Full-Time Occupation
Buddhist practice is not a hobby. It’s not something that we do as a sport or for relaxation. Buddhist practice is a full-time job. Our job is to work on our attitudes toward everything in our lives. If we are working on developing love for all beings, for example, we need to apply it in our families. Many people sit in their rooms meditating on love, but cannot get along with their parents or their partners. This is sad.
In trying to apply the Buddhist teachings to our real life situations at home and at work, we need to avoid extremes. One pole of the extreme is putting the whole blame on others. The other extreme is putting the entire blame on ourselves. What happens in life is very complex. Both sides contribute: others contribute; we contribute. We can try to get others to change their behavior and attitudes, but we all know from personal experience it’s not very easy – especially if we come on in a self-righteous, holy way and accuse the other of being a sinner. It’s much easier to try to change ourselves. Although we can make suggestions to others if they are receptive and if they will not become more aggressive because of our suggestions, but the major work is on ourselves.
In working on ourselves, we have to watch for another pair of extremes: being totally preoccupied with our feelings or not being aware of them at all. The first is narcissistic preoccupation. We are only concerned about what we feel. We tend to ignore what others are feeling. We tend to think that what we feel is far more important than what other people are feeling. On the other hand, we may be totally out of touch with our feelings or feel nothing at all, as if our emotions were shot with Novocain. Avoiding these extremes requires a delicate balance. It’s not so easy.
If we are always watching ourselves while with others, it creates an imagined duality – ourselves and what we are feeling or doing – and so we are not really into relating to someone or being with somebody. The real art is to relate and act in a natural and sincere way, while part of our attention is on our motivation and attitude. We need to try to do this, however, without having it be such a fractured way of acting that we are not present with the other person. If we are checking our motivation and feelings during the process of relating to someone, sometimes it is helpful to tell the person. However, it is very narcissistic to feel that we have to tell the person. Often, other people are not interested in what we are feeling. It is very self-important to feel that they want to know. When we notice that we are starting to act selfishly, we can just stop it. We don’t have to announce it.
Another set of two extremes is that we are all bad or all good. If we put too much emphasis on our difficulties, our problems, and our disturbing emotions, we could start to feel that we are bad persons. That very easily degenerates into guilt. “I should practice. If I don’t, I’m a bad person.” This is a very neurotic basis for practice.
We also need to avoid the other extreme, which is putting too much emphasis on our positive sides. “We are all perfect. We’re all Buddhas. Everything is wonderful.” This is very dangerous, because it can imply that we don’t need to give up anything; we don’t need to stop any negativities because all we need to do is see our basic good qualities. “I’m wonderful. I’m perfect. I don’t have to stop my negative behavior. I’m already a Buddha!” We need a balance. If we are feeling too down on ourselves, we need to remind ourselves of our ability to rid ourselves of all shortcomings and become Buddhas; if we are feeling a little bit too blasé, we need to emphasize our negative sides.
Basically, we need to take responsibility ourselves: for our development and for getting rid of our problems. Of course, we need help. It’s not easy to do this by ourselves. We can get help from spiritual teachers or from our spiritual community, people who are like-minded and who are working on themselves and not blaming each other for their problems. That is why in a partnership, it’s important to share the same type of attitude, particularly that of not blaming the other for any problems that arise. If both partners are blaming each other, it doesn’t work at all. If only one partner is working on himself or herself and the other is just blaming, it doesn’t work either. If we are already in a relationship in which the other person is accusing, but we are looking into what we might be contributing, it doesn’t mean that we need break off the relationship, but it is more difficult. We have to try to avoid being the martyr in this relationship: “I am enduring all of this! It is so difficult!” The whole thing can be very neurotic.
The Buddhist path is not an easy one. It’s dealing with the ugliness of life. We need some sort of strength to go on; we need stable sources of inspiration. If the source of our inspiration is teachers telling fantastic stories of miracles and all these sorts of things – about themselves or about others in Buddhist history – it will not be a very stable source of inspiration. It certainly can be very exciting, but we have to examine how this is affecting us. In many people, it reinforces a fantasy world in which we are wishing for salvation through miracles. We imagine that some grand magician is going to save us with his or her miracle powers, or that we will suddenly be able to develop these miraculous things ourselves. We have to be very cautious with respect to these fantastic stories. They may inspire our faith and so on, and that can be helpful, but it is not a stable basis of inspiration. We need a stable basis.
A perfect example is that of the Buddha himself. Buddha did not try to “inspire” people or impress them by telling fantastic stories. He did not put on airs by going around and blessing people and stuff like that. The analogy that Buddha used, repeated throughout the Buddhist teachings, is that a Buddha is like the sun. The sun does not try to warm people. Naturally, from the way the sun is, it spontaneously brings warmth to everyone. Although we may get high from hearing a fantastic story or by being touched on the head with a statue or getting a red string to tie around our necks, it is not stable. A stable source of inspiration is the way the teacher spontaneously and naturally is as a person – his or her character, the way he or she is as a result of practicing the Buddhist teachings. This is what is inspiring, not some act that the person puts on to entertain us. Although this may not be as exciting as a fantastic story, it will give us a stable sense of inspiration.
As we progress, we can get inspiration ourselves from our own progress – not from gaining miraculous powers, but from how our characters slowly change. The teachings always emphasize rejoicing in our own positive acts. It is very important to remember that progress is never linear. It does not just get better everyday. One of the characteristics of life is that our moods go up and down until we are completely free from all uncontrollably recurring problems, which is an unbelievably advanced state. We must expect that we will sometimes feel happy and sometimes unhappy. We will sometimes be able to act in positive ways and at other times our neurotic habits will be overpowering. It is going to be up and down. Miracles do not happen, usually.
The teachings on avoiding discomfort at the eight transitory things in life emphasize not getting a swollen head if things go well and not becoming depressed if they do not go well. That’s life. We need to look at the long-term effects, not the short-term effects. If we have been practicing for five years, for example, compared to five years ago there is a lot of progress. Even though we sometimes get upset, if we find that we’re able to handle situations with calmer, clearer minds and hearts, that indicates that we’ve made some progress. This is inspiring. It is not dramatic, although we would like it to be dramatic and we get high on dramatic shows. It is stable inspiration.
We need to be quite practical and down to earth. When we do purification practices, for instance, it’s important not to think of it as some external figure, a great saint, forgiving us of our sins. In Buddhism, there are no saints who will save us and bless us with purification. That is not the process at all. What purifies us is the fact that our minds are naturally pure. They are not inherently stained by confusion; confusion can be removed. It’s by recognizing the natural purity of the mind through our own efforts that we can let go of guilt, negative potentials, and so on. That enables the purification process to work.
Further, in doing all these practices and trying to put the Buddhist teachings into our daily lives, we need to recognize and acknowledge the level we’re on. It’s crucial not to be pretentious or to feel that we must be at a higher level than we are on now.
Approaching Buddhism from a Catholic Background
Some people who take interest in Buddhism may, for instance, come from a Catholic background. If that’s our case, then as we approach Buddhism and start to study, we don’t need to feel that we need to give up Catholicism and convert to Buddhism. However, it’s important not to mix the two practices. We don’t do three prostrations to the altar before sitting down in a church. Likewise, when we do a Buddhist practice, we don’t visualize the Virgin Mary, we visualize Buddha. We practice each individually. When we go to church, we just go to church; when we do a Buddhist meditation, we do a Buddhist meditation.
There are many common features, such as the emphasis on love, helping others, and so on. There is no conflict on the basic level. If we practice love, charity, and helping others, we are both a good Catholic and a good Buddhist. Eventually, however, we will have to make a choice, but that’s only when we’re ready to put our full effort into making tremendous spiritual progress. If we’re going to go to the top story of a building, we can’t go up two staircases at the same time – that’s a very helpful image. If we are just functioning on the basic ground level, in the lobby, fine. We don’t have to worry about it. We can benefit from both.
Avoiding Misplaced Loyalty
In applying Buddhism to our lives, we need to be careful not to reject our native religions as bad or inferior. That’s a big mistake. Then we could become a fanatic Buddhist and a fanatic anti-Catholic, for example. People do that with communism and democracy too. A psychological mechanism called misplaced loyalty takes over. There is a tendency to want to be loyal to our families, our backgrounds, and so on, so we want to be loyal to Catholicism although we have rejected it. If we are disloyal to our backgrounds and totally reject them as bad, we feel we are completely bad. Because this is extremely uncomfortable, we unconsciously feel the need to find something in our backgrounds to which we can be loyal.
The tendency is unconsciously to be loyal to certain less-beneficial aspects of our backgrounds. For example, we may reject Catholicism, but we bring a strong fear of hells into Buddhism. A friend of mine was very strongly Catholic, turned strongly to Buddhism, and then had an existential crisis, “I gave up Catholicism, so now I will go to Catholic hell; but if I give up Buddhism and go back to Catholicism, I will go to Buddhist hell!” Although it might sound funny, it was really quite a serious problem to her.
We often unconsciously bring certain attitudes from Catholicism into our Buddhist practice. The most common ones are guilt and looking for miracles and for others to save us. If we don’t practice, we feel that we should practice, and if we don’t, we’re guilty. These ideas are not at all helpful. We need to recognize when we are doing this. We need to look at our backgrounds and acknowledge the positive aspects so that we can be loyal to the positive rather than to the negative features. Rather than thinking, “I have inherited guilt and miracle-seeking,” we can think, “I have inherited the Catholic tradition of love, charity, and helping the unfortunate.”
We can do the same thing regarding our families. We might reject them and then be unconsciously loyal to their negative traditions, rather than consciously loyal to their positive ones. If we acknowledge, for example, that we are very grateful for the Catholic backgrounds they have given us, then we can go on our own paths without conflict about our past and without negative feelings constantly jeopardizing our progress.
It’s important to try to understand the psychological validity of this. If we think of our past – our families, our religions of birth, or whatever – as negative, we tend to have negative attitudes toward ourselves. On the other hand, if we can acknowledge the positive things in our backgrounds and our past, we tend more to have positive attitudes toward ourselves. That helps us to be much more stable in our spiritual paths.
We need to proceed slowly, step-by-step. When we hear or read about very advanced teachings, although great masters of the past have said, “As soon as you hear a teaching, immediately put it into practice,” we need to determine whether something is too advanced for us or if it is something that we can put into practice now. If it is too advanced, we have to discern the steps we will need to take to prepare ourselves to be able to put it into practice, and then follow those steps. In short, as one of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, said, “If we practice fantasy methods, we get imaginary results; if we practice practical methods, we will get practical results.”