Transforming Adverse Circumstances with Our Thoughts

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Transforming Our Behavior through Our Thoughts

We’ve covered the first two points – the preliminaries and the actual training in bodhichitta. Now we’re ready for the third of the seven points, which is transforming difficult circumstances into the path to enlightenment. This third point is divided into two sections: how we transform difficulties with our thoughts and how we transform them with our actions. How we transform them with our thoughts is divided into how we transform them with our thoughts about our behavior and how we transform them through our view.

How to transform adverse circumstances with our thoughts concerning our behavior is covered in the verse:

When the environment and its dwellers are full of negative forces, transform adverse conditions into a path to enlightenment by banishing one thing as (bearing) all blame and meditating with great kindness toward everyone.

Inevitably in our lives, there are going to be very difficult situations and difficult people. It is at those times when we encounter them that we need to be able to transform these difficult circumstances so that they actually become conducive for furthering our practice. The general advice in this verse is to place all the blame for these difficulties on our self-cherishing attitude. By thinking about the benefits of cherishing others, we meditate on the great kindness we’ve received so that we can develop a cherishing attitude toward everyone.

This approach is very important, because there are so many adverse conditions in our degenerate times. In fact, one literature course that I took in university conducted a survey of classics going back to the ancient Greeks. It taught us that every great authors and philosophers throughout history has thought that they lived in the worst of times. In reality, however, it’s not true that any time was particularly worse than any others. If we wait for everything to be conducive for our practice, we’re going to have to wait forever. We also can’t put the blame on external circumstances for why we’re not practicing. The blame lies internally, with our self-cherishing attitude.

In fact, any time suffering that we experience is the fault of our self-cherishing, never the fault of others. It’s our self-cherishing attitude that causes us to act destructively. It builds up negative forces and the negative potential of karma, which later ripen into our experiencing difficult situations. Yet if we actually experience these negative effects, it’s actually very good, because we’re getting rid of this negative potential. We’re happy that we’re over with it. What we’re doing here is changing our attitude toward how we’ve been behaving in the past. We begin to see how we’ve behaved as having been quite self-centered and selfish, and how this behavior has been the root of our problems.

Another way to change our attitude is to view those who cause us suffering as emanations of the great gurus. It is useful to think that they are giving us a warning, helping us to gain conviction in karmic cause and effect, so that we won’t commit more destructive actions that would cause us further suffering. For example, if we’re cleaning a dirty house and somebody comes along to help us to clean it, we would rejoice. Likewise, somebody that causes us problems or suffering is helping us to clean out our self-cherishing and to change our attitude toward how we’ve been behaving.

It is said that bodhisattvas don’t like to be happy or for everything to go well for them, because it exhausts their positive karmic potential. Instead, they actually prefer problems, as it exhausts their negative karmic potentials. In fact, bodhisattvas prefer abuse to praise because praise causes us to be proud, obscuring our own shortcomings. They welcome criticism. If we’re criticized and so become aware of our shortcomings, we can work to eliminate them. When somebody really points out our difficulties and embarrasses us, this is much better than everybody treating us like a baby or telling us, “Oh, you’re so nice.” We never learn anything with treatment like this. Instead, we need to be challenged in order to grow.

Serkong Rinpoche’s exclusive name for me was “Dummy.” He never failed to point out when I was acting stupidly. Actually, I had agreed for him to do this. I had asked him, “Please make a donkey like me into a proper human being.” It’s what I wished. He was very kind. In all of the nine years I helped and translated for him, he only thanked me twice. This approach is the kindest of all.

Obviously, we need to have tested the teacher very well to allow him or her to do something similar with us. We need to be sure that both of us are perfectly qualified and ready. If the teacher is properly qualified, this means he or she has equal love and concern for everyone, including us. For example, when Serkong Rinpoche criticized me, I never thought, “He’s angry with me. He doesn’t love me.” Such thoughts never came to my mind. Nor did I try to justify my actions. I just kept silent and tried to learn from it. Usually my only response was that it made me laugh nervously. My other teacher, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, told me that the way I handled criticism was very good.

I’ll give you an example of my idiotic behavior, it’s one of my favorite examples. Once I was translating for Serkong Rinpoche in France, and he was editing the text at the same time he was teaching it. He wanted me to take notes, and I didn’t have a pen with me. So, I asked the person in front of me to loan me a pen. It was a really strange looking French woman with very bright red hennaed hair and red lipstick; she was holding a red rose in her teeth throughout the whole teaching. She loaned me the pen, and then after the teaching she held her hand out to me. I was so insensitive and self-preoccupied that I went to shake her hand, because I thought that she wanted to congratulate me for translating so nicely. Rinpoche roared, “Idiot! Give her the pen back.” At that time, I was indeed a donkey.

I believe it was Marpa, or somebody else, who said, “When my teacher hits me this is the blessing of Heruka.” Basically, if somebody is acting like an idiot, a Zen master would hit them with a stick. Similarly, it’s like waiting for a thank you. Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey had a way of thinking that I found very helpful: “What am I doing, sitting there like a dog and waiting to be patted on the head? And then I’ll wag my tail?” This kind of behavior is completely self-cherishing. I helped my teachers because I saw that they were able to help others far more than I could ever do. So, the best thing I could do was to help them help others.

In the beginning, Serkong Rinpoche never agreed to teach me personally anything by myself. The only exception was Kalachakra, but normally he would never teach me anything unless I translated it for someone else. It couldn’t be only for myself. This was the best kind of “treatment” for someone wanting to overcome pride. It’s not so effective for people who have low self-esteem, as this method would have been totally ineffective. For a teacher who would think that they would abuse this approach, I advise never do this. I was coming from a PhD at Harvard, where I was one of the top students. I had arrogance and pride like you couldn’t believe. This treatment was very helpful for someone like me.

To continue, the next way to handle times when others are hurting us is to develop compassion for them. It’s helpful to think about all the negative karmic potential that they’re building up and the suffering that they’re experiencing from acting negatively toward us. Then finally, through the practice of tonglen we imagine taking on that suffering.

We can think, “Others harming me are helping me to achieve enlightenment, so I’m indebted to them.” For instance, one lama that had leprosy said, “If I didn’t have it, I would be lost in samsara. But as I have it, it’s the enlightening influence of the Buddhas to help steer me toward acting positively and practicing the Dharma. I am indebted to them.” We too can adopt this approach – not only with people, but also with difficult situations like breaking our leg, or seriously hurt in an accident, or something like that. One way to change a difficulty into a positive circumstance is to think, “Now I can put all my effort into Dharma practice,” rather than getting all depressed, feeling sorry for ourselves or waiting for everything to be perfect, which will never happen.

Shantideva said if something can be remedied, don’t get uptight or upset about it, just fix it; and if it can’t be fixed, then don’t get uptight because it won’t help. If suffering comes and we can’t eliminate it, we just try to do our best to transform it into the path to enlightenment. He also said that suffering has its good points. It diminishes our pride, as we develop the determination to be free from the causes of it. We also develop compassion for others who are similarly suffering. By seeing suffering as a warning, we become cautious about acting destructively ever again. Furthermore, suffering motivates us to act in a constructive way.

In summary, adopting the approaches discussed is how we can change and transform our attitude toward how we’ve been behaving and how we’re going to behave in the future.

Transformation through Understanding Voidness

The next line in the text concerns transforming our way of thinking with our view of reality:

Voidness, from meditating on deceptive appearances as the four Buddha Bodies, is the peerless protector.

This line doesn’t appear in the transmission that came through Tsongkhapa.

This point basically concerns seeing deceptive appearances, and the suffering that results from taking them to correspond to reality, as coming simply from our mistaken perception. They are not truly existent as they appear to be. They do not have any truly existing arising, ceasing or abiding. These deceptive appearances are just coming from our incorrect view of reality. We’re not only talking about the deceptive appearance of the thought “poor me,” we’re also talking about the suffering itself. Basically, how disturbing emotions appear to us is deceptive. They don’t have a findable existent arising. It’s like the Dharmakaya doesn’t arise. The omniscient mind of a Buddha is not something that is created.

Furthermore, the deceptive appearances and the disturbing emotions don’t have a truly findable cessation. We see that as Sambhogakaya, which is the subtle appearances of a Buddha that help others. Sambhogakaya has no end. It never ceases.

All of these deceptive appearances – the suffering and the disturbing emotions – have no true abiding. They’re not just sitting somewhere for a while and then going off. We see this as Nirmanakaya, which are the Emanation Bodies of a Buddha that are constantly changing and appearing in different forms.

The inseparability of these three Bodies – not truly existent arising, abiding, or ceasing – this is called the Svabhavakaya, the Essential Nature Body. This is how the Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu traditions define this Buddha Body.

The meaning and way to apply this line concerning the four Buddha Bodies are obviously very obscure. However, when we speak about the voidness of things and the voidness of coming and going, Nagarjuna said that it’s not as though something that is truly and findably existent has a big solid line around it, comes on stage, has an arising, sits for a while, plays itself out, and then leaves as a truly existing arising, abiding, or ceasing. These are inseparable, which means that if one is the case, so are all the other two. One can’t be the case and not the others.

We can see in terms of the four Buddha Bodies that the Dharmakaya doesn’t have any arising. The omniscient mind of a Buddha is not the product of getting rid of the disturbing emotions. It’s there and it has these abilities. It doesn’t truly arise – it’s just that it appears once it’s uncovered. The Sambhogakaya are subtle emanations that teach arya bodhisattvas until the end of samsara, which by all practical purposes is not going to come, although theoretically it is possible. And so, the texts always say the Sambhogakaya never ceases, that it goes on forever, whereas the Nirmanakaya is constantly changing. Any particular Nirmanakaya is not going to last forever – it’s going to change. This is the non-abiding aspect.

We can see these four aspects as the four Buddha Bodies in the self-voidness sense like this, but actually the line makes far more sense in terms of the “other-voidness” explanation found in Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu, but not in Gelug. Other-voidness basically refers to the nature of the mind that would understand voidness. It is devoid of all other grosser levels of mind. What is emphasized here is to see the mind as a Buddha, in the sense that it has the four Buddha Bodies as its aspects. This is one of the deeper teachings, particularly in the Karma Kagyu tradition – recognizing the mind as a Buddha. It doesn’t mean, however, that we’re already enlightened.

When we speak of deceptive appearances, disturbing emotions and suffering, they are all seen as waves of Dharmakaya, in the sense that they don’t arise from the outside. Their clarity aspect, which refers to the mind’s aspect of giving rise to appearances, is something that never ceases. It is what we mean by the Sambhogakaya of the mind. This clarity aspect is constantly appearing in different forms, so it never abides nor stays – that’s Nirmanakaya. It’s simultaneously like this and simultaneously it’s inseparably arising, abiding, and ceasing. This is basically seeing how thoughts – what we have in the mahamudra and dzogchen methods – arise, abide, and cease simultaneously. It’s through this method that we can get to a deeper level, and that’s the Svabhavakaya, the inseparability of the three Bodies.

To conclude, we need to see our disturbing emotions and suffering as the four Buddha Bodies in the sense that they have no true arising, abiding, or ceasing. This understanding is what is meant by the peerless protector. Further, we can change our attitude and transform our negative circumstances into positive ones by understanding that they are just the clarity aspect of the mind that is giving rise to appearances. We also need to understand that these appearances are not coming from the outside, that they’re changing all the time, and that the clarity aspect is never ceasing. It’s all very profound – very difficult, but very profound.