Regarding Others as Teachers of Patience

Viewing Others as Respected Teachers

Verse six of our eight-verse text expresses a similar sentiment to what Togme Zangpo communicates in the verse we previously cited in our discussion of verse five, in which he refers to someone we’ve raised and cherished like our own child regarding us like an enemy. For such a person, we regard them with the special loving kindness of a mother toward her sick child.

(6) Even if someone whom I have helped and from whom I harbor great expectations were to harm me completely unbefittingly, may I view him or her as a hallowed teacher.

In this example, not only do we regard the other person like a mother toward her child, but we also see them as our teacher of patience. It can be particularly challenging when people that we have been very kind to and have helped a great deal turn around and act unkindly, are uncaring, do something very inconsiderate, or hurt us completely unbefittingly. How do we deal with this? There are many examples of this kind of situation, such as teenage children acting disrespectfully or even our friends being disloyal to us. When this happens, aren’t we very disappointed? We have great expectations, which obviously isn’t helpful at all. Shantideva provides a very good way of dealing with this:

(VIII.22) If limited beings, with varied dispositions, couldn’t be pleased by even the Triumphant, what need to mention by the poor likes of me? Therefore, let me give up my preoccupation with worldly people.

In other words, why worry about everybody liking us? Even the Buddha couldn’t please everybody. Buddha was so kind, yet people like his cousin Devadatta were still trying to hurt him. What do we expect? Do we think we’re going to be able to please everybody and everybody will be nice to us? If not everybody liked the Buddha, how can we expect everyone to like us? Shantideva further states:

(VI.54) Others’ dislike for me – that won’t devour me, either in this life or in any other lifetime; so why do I find it undesirable?

Basically, we shouldn’t be concerned about others disliking us.

Circumstances and Situations That Make Us Grow

(VI.65) And toward those who injure my spiritual teachers, my relatives and so on, and my friends as well, my rage will be averted, by having seen that this arises from conditions, as in the manner before.

If we’re very kind to somebody and, in return, at times they treat us poorly, we should understand that, “This arises from conditions.” Their treatment of us comes from our previous karma and the other person’s past karma. It’s important to understand that there are so many factors affecting the nature of our relationship with others. Developing this kind of awareness helps us to develop patience. Shantideva continues:

(VI.111) Therefore, since patience arises dependently from his vicious intention, this one himself is fit to be honored like the hallowed Dharma, because he’s a cause of my patience.

This verse refers to taking the other person as our teacher of patience. In this example, patience arises dependently on him or her being nasty. In 37 Bodhisattva Practices, Togme Zangpo likewise discusses seeing others as our spiritual teacher of patience:

(15) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if someone exposes our faults or says foul words (about us) in the midst of a gathering of many wandering beings, to bow to him respectfully, recognizing him as our spiritual teacher.

The teaching reflected in this verse is very helpful. I’m reminded of when I would be translating in front of a group of people for Serkong Rinpoche. If I didn’t understand something or if I made a mistake, he wouldn’t go on until I had understood correctly. It didn’t matter how embarrassed I felt or how awkward it was for everybody there, I had to understand and get it right or he wouldn’t let me go on. He always sensed when I didn’t understand something, and he’d say, “Translate back to me what you understood from what I just said.” Often, I would become all flustered if I still didn’t get it right, but he would go over it again and again until I understood correctly. This was very helpful.

Another time, I was translating for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in front of about 10,000 people. I remember after translating something His Holiness pointed at me and laughed into his microphone, “Ha ha ha, he just made a mistake.” I felt like a tiny little ant and just wanted to crawl under the carpet! But instead, I just had to continue, without getting flustered or upset.

This is how a great guru teaches us. By exposing our faults in front of so many people, it teaches us to not develop this sense of self-consciousness or the ego trip of “poor me.” We learn how to keep our composure and simply go on. Overall, the greatest teacher is one who provides us with the circumstances to really test ourselves.

Also from 37 Bodhisattva Practices:

(17) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if someone, our equal or inferior, were to try to demean us out of the power of his arrogance, to receive him on the crown of our heads respectfully, like a guru.

Even if someone obviously has fewer good qualities than we have, is very arrogant and critical, or puts us down, we should not be even more arrogant toward this person. Instead, we should view them as being just like a little child and accept them as our guru of patience.

It’s these kinds of situations that allow us to grow by applying the practices. Therefore, such people are like a treasure, like our sick child, or they’re like our guru. These are the ways of looking at others when we are in these types of situations. So, if someone is acting like a little child, saying, “You’re stupid, I know better,” well of course they don’t necessarily know better, but what are we going to do? Should we say, “You little worm, you don’t know anything?” This type of reaction doesn’t help at all. We need to listen to what they say.

Furthermore, when somebody is much younger or much less experienced or knowledgeable and they point things out to us, we should thank them. Even though they might not have as much experience as we do, sometimes they make very good suggestions. It doesn’t matter if they are very arrogant, still, we say, “Thank you.”

Actually, the way to avoid increasing their arrogance and ego is to thank them and then explain what they suggested on a deeper level. By explaining something in much more detail and depth than they provided, they can begin to see that perhaps they didn’t understand all the implications and aspects. Taking this very gentle approach can help them overcome their arrogance.

Getting Rid of Expectations

Let’s return to the point made in the beginning of this verse: Even if someone whom I have helped and from whom I harbor great expectations were to harm me completely unbefittingly… This line brings up the point of whether it’s appropriate to have great expectations regarding those we’ve helped, even if that expectation is just a “thank you” or the thought that they’re going to pay us back.

If we look at the Seven Point Mind Training by Geshe Chekawa, in which he presents the eighteen close-bonding practices, the eighth practice is: “Rid myself of hopes for fruits.” In other words, we need to get rid of any hope that we’re going to get some results from helping this person, even a simple “thank you.” In fact, the last of the twenty-two points for training in this Seven Point Mind Training is: “Don’t wish for any thanks.” We help and teach others simply in order to help them, not to be thanked or anything like that.

I remember an incident from when I was translating for Serkong Rinpoche in Italy. Wherever Rinpoche went, people often made offerings of money to him. The custom is to put it in an envelope and present it. Some people would make big shows out of presenting an offering. It’s not just in the West, but in India as well we can hear in pujas in the temples: “This patron donated this much and that one donated that much.” At times, the Tibetans read the list of donors out like this; however, that really is not the spirit or essence of offerings. We don’t make offerings to be honored in that way.

This one time in Italy, a man came in and spoke with Serkong Rinpoche and as he left, he very discreetly put an envelope with quite a large offering on a side table by the door, without making any show. After he left, Serkong Rinpoche pointed out to me that this is the best way to make an offering. Don’t make a big show; don’t do it for thanks, for an acknowledgment or anything like that. Getting a “thank you” isn’t going to give us more merit, more positive force. We receive the positive force from making the offering, not from getting the “thank you.” In fact, if we expect a “thank you,” then our motivation is not terribly pure. The point is to make donations, not to become famous as the big donor or to have something, like a building, named after us or to get our name on a plaque on the wall. That’s not the point at all.

Now, this doesn’t mean that when somebody else does something kind or helpful that we don’t thank them. However, this depends entirely on the culture. For example, my Indian friends have explained to me that Indians find it very insulting to be thanked for things that they’re naturally doing to help us. Saying “thank you” implies that we didn’t think that they would open the door for us, serve us a nice meal, or do something ordinary like that. It is more of an insult, as if we thought that they would never do anything like that for us. This belief can be explained in terms of the whole Indian concept of duty: “I’m doing my duty to serve you.” But, for Westerners, this is not the case. Thanking someone is not just about being polite. It’s also a nice gesture to show one’s appreciation and gratitude.

However, from the side of the person who’s helped or given something, they should on the one hand be “like a tiger with grass,” as they say, not too excited about what they’ve received. Yet on the other hand, they should be appreciative. If somebody pays us a compliment, it’s OK to say, “Thank you. I’m happy it could be of some help.”

Application in Daily Life and Meditation

I saw someone in Morocco give money to a beggar in a hidden fashion. When I asked, he said that thanks will come from Allah, not to expect it from the other person.

Yes, this is a similar idea; our merit or positive force doesn’t get stronger by means of the other person saying “thank you” to us. But if we do say “thank you,” we need to mean it. It’s not like in Mexico, where people may tend to over-exaggerate, “Marvilloso! This was the most wonderful thing in the world, it was incredibly helpful.” Such over-exaggeration doesn’t mean anything. Clearly, there are two extremes. Some cultures don’t say anything, and we have no idea if anything we did was helpful; the other extreme is they make such a big show out of thanking us that it loses all credibility and so, in the end, it doesn’t mean anything.

It might be helpful to examine a bit if we do expect thanks for the help that we give to others. Again, I’m always reminded of my own experience with my teacher, Serkong Rinpoche. In the nine years that I served as his personal interpreter and secretary for Westerners, he only thanked me twice for the help that I gave him, although I was helping him very much all the time. Personally, this was very helpful; although, for other people, it might have been a little bit too heavy. Again, what was I expecting? Was it to get a pat on the head, and be told “good boy” and then wag my tail? Or was I really motivated just to help him?

What truly motivated me to become a translator was that I valued the teachings of Serkong Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama so highly that it seemed almost criminal that they didn’t have good translators. When I first went to India, there was nothing translated; therefore, I wanted to make their teachings available to others because their teachings were so precious. That’s why I served them; it wasn’t to get a pat on the head.

But, for people who need encouragement, a “thank you” is helpful. In many cultures, people feel it’s nice to be thanked; therefore, from our side it’s important to thank others. However, for us to expect a “thank you” and when we’re not thanked, to get very disappointed or linger around uncomfortably until someone finally thanks us, this isn’t helpful. The point is to think about what we might expect when helping others? Are we expecting something in return?

Some people say that when we help our children or students, it shouldn’t be with the hope that they’re going to help us back; but at least with the hope that they’re going to help their children in the future. However, even that is an expectation.

When people say “thank you” to us, we might feel uncomfortable and dismiss it very lightly. That also might make the other person feel uncomfortable.

Yes, it’s very true. When somebody says, “Thank you,” in English we say, “You’re welcome, I’m happy that it was useful to you.” When someone gives us something, even if it’s something we don’t need or want, one of the bodhisattva vows is to accept it and not to refuse it. This is because we’re allowing the person to build up some positive force by giving or doing something for us. We give others the opportunity to practice and develop generosity.

For instance, when a three-year-old child draws us a picture, we need to accept it gratefully. This is really quite significant for helping to develop the character of the child, allowing them to give and be shown appreciation. However, if someone continuously gives us something useless, we can do as Serkong Rinpoche did with me. He said, “Don’t bring me these stupid katas (ceremonial scarves); I don’t need more katas or junk that you bring me. If you want to bring me something, bring me something that I like.” Then he told me that he liked bananas. After that, I would always bring him things that he liked. People give so much junk to lamas. How many katas and how many boxes of incense do they need?

When somebody gives us something really junky, nevertheless we should just accept it. We don’t have to display it in our house; we don’t have to do anything. We can throw it away or give it to somebody else, for example. Tibetan lamas are often given sweets, cakes and things they dislike. Most of them just give such gifts to the next person who comes in.

However, once when I was traveling in the West with Serkong Rinpoche, we stayed with a family and the mother made a chocolate cake because she was so into pleasing him. But, Rinpoche didn’t like sweets. Nevertheless, he ate a little piece to show his appreciation. He told his assistant to get the recipe for the cake because it was so good. It made the mother feel so happy that she was able to do something that pleased him.

Okay, for a few moments, let’s examine ourselves: 

  • When we help others, or do things for others, do we expect a “thank you?”
  • What do we expect?