Verse 11: Living Happily without Unease or Attachments
How to Act When We Meet People Even When We Are Living in Seclusion
Let me rid myself of hostility and uneasy mental states, and go happily everywhere.
Here, Atisha is continuing the discussion about how to act when we are with other people. Even if we’re living in seclusion, we nevertheless are going to meet people. So, when we’re with them, it’s very important not to have hostility – “You’re interrupting my practice! Why did you come bother me?” – or other uneasy mental states. If we have uneasy mental states when we’re with other people, we’re never going to be happy.
Often this uneasiness comes because we don’t see everybody as equal, which is what was discussed in the previous verse – the necessity of seeing everybody as equal. We’re attached to some; we’re repulsed by others; and we ignore yet others. So, if somebody whom we find attractive or to whom we are attached comes, we feel happy and we want them to stay. If we don’t find them attractive, then we don’t want to see them; we repel and reject them. If we are totally indifferent to them, we just want to ignore them and perhaps even resent that they have come or that they’ve asked for our help.
I don’t recall where the line comes from, but Shantideva or another great master said, “A bodhisattva is never more delighted than when somebody wants his or her help.” It’s like when somebody has trained to be a nurse: When it comes time for them to actually use their skills to help others, they’re very happy. Similarly, if we’ve been training to be bodhisattvas and somebody that we’re capable of helping comes to us asking for our help – this is a great opportunity for rejoicing, not for feeling annoyed. So, let me rid myself of hostility and uneasy mental states…
…and go happily everywhere. If we’ve rid ourselves of these negative states of mind, we’ll be able to go anywhere happily. Of course, if there are too many people bothering and interrupting us, particularly with very little things, then we sometimes need to isolate ourselves again. Tsongkhapa himself moved all the time when he was younger. When he was staying at a place and too many people started coming with offerings and these sorts of things, he would move to a different place. When he was older, he stayed at the monasteries he had established. At that point, he was able to help others a great deal and to establish learning institutions that would continue for a long time. But while he was training at various monasteries, many people would travel to see him because he was very famous. He was the most outstanding scholar of his time.
He was like Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche. Serkong Rinpoche would go to a place, and many people would come all day long, presenting ceremonial scarves (katas) and making prostrations – making sure that they prostrated directly in front of him so that he saw them prostrate. He would have to sit there and bless them, give them a red string to wear around their necks or something like that. That’s something that could take up all of one’s time. It also doesn’t really benefit anyone on a profound level – certainly not like teaching someone would. So, if that was happening to Tsongkhapa – people coming and giving the equivalent of one rupee, coming with offerings and so on, coming with the 575th box of incense that one doesn’t need – then it’s better to move. When one becomes too famous, too many people come, wanting little things, and they take up all of one’s time.
How that would refer to our own situations here in the West is a little bit difficult to see. I know from my own experience that traveling as a teacher is very different from staying in one place to teach. Serkong Rinpoche always used to say, “If you travel as a teacher, don’t overstay your welcome. Don’t stay more than a certain number of days. If you’re there for a few days, then people find it a special event, and they’ll come to the teachings. But if you stay for too long, then, on the one hand, you become a burden to the people who are taking care of you and, on the other hand, you are taken for granted, so people don’t come.” This is what I’ve seen, especially if you live in a place: “Well, I can always go next week,” “Oh, I have a birthday party,” or “Oh, I have a movie that I want to see.” In that type of situation, it’s best to move on to a place where you can be of more use or benefit.
Obviously, we always need to check our own personal situations. On the one hand, if people need our help, then we are willing to help. On the other hand, if nobody really needs our help or they come just to bother us all the time and are not really in a position to be helped, then we move on. One looks at the life of a monastic. A monastic is somebody who has left their home, who is homeless. Again, it all depends on the level of our practice.
Getting Rid of Possessions We Are Attached to
So, let me rid myself of whatever I’m attached to and live without attachments.
This refers to possessions in particular. If there is something that we’re very attached to, the advice is to give it away or to put it in a box or in a closet so that we don’t see it all the time and get preoccupied with it.
They say it’s very helpful to make our homes as simple as possible. Like in a cave, we’re not so attached to the rock wall of the cave. If we spend all our time decorating our houses and have all sorts of precious things around, we get very much attached. Mind you, it’s nice to have a pleasing environment if it helps our minds, but we don’t want to get too carried away with trying to make things gorgeous.
The houses of the great lamas in India are decorated with pictures of their teachers or the Buddha-figures, the yidams, not with artwork. That helps them to stay mindful of the practice. But again, if we accumulate these things just to have some sort of art collection, getting only the finest artwork and so on, then we’re just preoccupying ourselves with objects of attachment. It all depends on our attitude.
Verse 12: Advice for Leading a Happy Life
Disadvantages of Attachment
With attachment, I won’t attain even a happy rebirth and I’ll cut off the life of my liberation, in fact.
Being attached to things often leads to destructive behavior. In the worst case, we have to steal to get more. Being very attached, we have covetous thinking, planning and plotting how we can get more: “How can I get a better art collection than my neighbor?” or “How can I get a more elaborate altar than she’s got?” In this way, not only will we not be able to attain a happy rebirth, we will in fact ruin our chances to gain liberation. Our chances are very negatively affected by this kind of attachment to samsara. Therefore, sometimes His Holiness says that if we’re going to be attached to something, we should try to be attached to positive things rather than negative things.
This line in the text also refers to sexual lust. Lust also causes tremendous attachment. Because of it, we always on the hunt to catch better and more beautiful partners. That certainly causes tremendous difficulties in terms of future lives and liberation. There are some lines from an old calypso song: “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife.”
Following the Dharma as a Source of Happiness
So wherever I see a Dharma measure (for bringing) happiness, let me exert effort always in that.
A Dharma measure bringing happiness refers to ethics. By refraining from destructive behavior – in other words, refraining from acting on the basis of our disturbing emotions – and by engaging in positive things, we will bring about our happiness. Ethics is the opponent here to lust, attachment, and greed. It prevents us from going around stealing, having inappropriate sexual encounters with other people’s partners, and so on.
So, when we see a Dharma measure of ethics that will bring happiness, let me exert effort always in that – namely, to restrain ourselves from acting in this or that negative way. That refers as well to the bodhisattva vow to refrain from praising ourselves and putting down others. Exerting effort to refrain in this way will not only bring us happiness, but will also enable us to bring more happiness to others.
Verse 13: Finishing What We Have Started
Whatever I’ve undertaken to start with, let me accomplish that very thing first. Everything, this way, will get accomplished well; otherwise, neither will come about.
We might recognize these lines. Atisha put them together from verses forty-three and the first half of forty-four from chapter five of Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior.
(V.43) Having considered and begun to do something, I won’t think about anything other than this. Then, with my intentions directed at that, I shall accomplish that very thing first.
(V.44) Everything, this way, will get accomplished well; otherwise, neither will come about.
This is stating that, first, we need to think very carefully before we undertake something – whether an education or some sort of activity. We need to think about what the benefits of doing it are – and not just the benefits in terms of this lifetime, but in terms of future lives as well. We think about our ability to actually do it and about how much time it’s going to take – how many years and so on. In that way, we decide what to undertake, what not to undertake, and what is going to bring the most benefit to us and to others.
It’s important not to rush into things. This refers particularly to taking vows. Don’t be in a rush to take a vow. We need to examine very carefully whether or not we can keep it. And if we’re going to take it, we keep it well. Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey used to point out sarcastically, “It’s a good thing there are only three sets of vows. If there were a fourth, we would take it and not keep those vows either!” On the other hand, in keeping the vows well, we need to avoid being fanatics. If we’re fanatics, then we’re not going to be the slightest bit flexible. Even in the vinaya there are exceptions, situations that call for us to be flexible. For example, a monk is not supposed to touch a woman, but if a woman is drowning, he doesn’t say, “Sorry, I can’t give you a hand. I’m not allowed to touch women.” That would be absurd.
It’s the same thing when thinking to undertake a task or to undergo a higher education. We must first think very carefully about the benefits of doing it and not rush in. And if we’re going to do it, we do it properly; we do it well – but, again, without being fanatics. We need to be able to let go when it’s finished – not get attached and hang on. Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey used to say, “Life is too short to taste everything, so don’t become a professional tourist of samsara. You don’t have to go taste and see everything of samsara. That’s not going to get you anywhere” – a very helpful piece of advice.
When choosing what to do, how to spend our time, what people to spend it with and so on, we choose according to our talents, according to what most needs to be done and what is not being done by many other people, and according to what would benefit the largest number of people. This is the advice His Holiness gave me. And, again, the benefits we’re thinking of are not just those that would be realized in this lifetime.
Also, as Ringu Tulku reaffirmed when he was visiting here in Berlin a little while ago, when we’re choosing how to spend our time and whom to help, another factor to consider is what we personally would get out of it. That’s because, until we’re very high bodhisattvas, there’s always going to be some selfish component to our motivations. So, for instance, there are certain things we might do that would give us a lot of energy. There are also certain people whom we might help or spend our time with who have a lot of positive energy and who would give us inspiration, whereas others would just drain our energy and make us feel very exhausted after having been with them. So, these also can be factors in choosing how to spend our time and whom to help.
When it comes to choosing what to work on ourselves, the advice is always to meditate on bodhichitta. That is the best thing and the biggest source of energy.
Verse 14: Ridding Ourselves of Feelings of Superiority and Arrogance
While still acting always negatively and parted from joy, when a feeling of superiority arises about anything, let me cut off my pride and remember my sublime teacher’s guideline instructions.
Because we’re still in a samsaric situation, we’re acting always negatively and parted from the joy of liberation and enlightenment. In such a time, when we have a feeling of superiority about anything, like our bodhichitta meditation, our practice – “Oh, I’m so holy,” and “I’m doing so well,” and so on – we need to cut off our pride and remember our teacher’s guideline instructions that we’re like the tide of the ocean that goes up and down, up and down. Sometimes we feel very proud that we’re doing so well; other times we get discouraged and think we’re so terrible.
When we’re feeling pride, the guideline instruction is to think about death and impermanence: “Well, I’m so great, but I’m going to get sick and grow old and die, and all these things I’m so proud of are not going to last.” Also, we think about the fact that, no matter how good we are, there are always others who are much better. If we compare ourselves with them, it helps to dampen our pride. When we become discouraged, the guideline instruction is to think about the precious human lives that we have, the opportunities that we have, and how so many others are so much worse off than we are. That helps us not to get so discouraged.