Transforming Adverse Circumstances with Our Thoughts

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We’ve covered the first two points – the preliminaries and the actual training in bodhichitta – and now we’re ready for the third of the seven points, which is transforming difficult circumstances, or adverse circumstances, into the path to enlightenment. This is divided into two sections – how we transform it with our thoughts and how we transform it with our actions.

In terms of transformation with our thoughts – it’s our thoughts concerning our behavior, what we think about our behavior, our attitude behind it, and also how we transform it with our thoughts concerning our view of reality. So, first concerning our behavior, what we think, what’s our attitude toward how we behave – this is the first part of the section:

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.

So, what we want to do is… in our lives, of course there are going to be very difficult situations that we meet, different people are going to give us trouble, or different insects or whatever, and also the environment is going to be difficult. In those times then we want to be able to transform that, so that these difficult conditions actually become conditions that are conducive for furthering our practice.

The general advice is to place all the blame for these difficulties that we’re experiencing on one thing, which is our self-cherishing attitude, and banish it, in other words send it out from ourselves. By thinking of the benefits of cherishing others, then we meditate in terms of great kindness, a cherishing attitude toward everyone.

This is very important, because there are so many adverse conditions in our degenerate times. In fact, one literature course that I took did a survey of literature going back to the ancient Greeks, and it focused on the theme that everybody wrote that they lived in the worst of times. It’s not that any time was particularly worse. Everybody, all the major authors felt that, or philosophers. So, if we wait for everything to be conducive for our practice, then we’re going to have to wait forever.

So, we don’t put the blame externally for why we’re not practicing, but place it internally on our self-cherishing. When suffering occurs, it’s the fault of our self-cherishing, not the fault of others. Self-cherishing has caused us to act destructively, that has built up negative force, negative potentials of karma, and that’s ripening now in terms of this suffering situation or difficult situation. If we actually experience it, this is very good, because we’re getting rid of this negative potential. It’s then finished, so let’s get it over with. We’re happy with that. So, you see what we’re doing here is [changing] our attitude toward how we’ve been behaving in the past. We’ve been behaving in the past in selfish type of ways and that has caused these problems. We need to change our attitude.

Another way to change our attitude about what’s happening is [to see] that those who cause us suffering are emanations of the great gurus, giving me a warning to practice, and helping me to gain conviction in karmic cause and effect, so that I won’t commit further destructive actions that would cause further such suffering.

This point here concerns our attitude about our behavior. How we’ve been acting destructively before, and how to view that so that we don’t experience so much suffering from that, and will stop acting in that way, because we’ve changed our attitude about how we’ve been acting.

If our house is dirty and we have to clean it ourselves, then if somebody comes along and helps us to clean it, we rejoice, we’re very happy. Likewise, somebody that causes us trouble, and suffering, and problems is helping us to cleanse away, clean out our house from our self-cherishing, change our attitude about how we’ve been behaving.

Bodhisattvas don’t like to be happy and everything to go well for them, because it exhausts your positive potentials, your positive karma. They prefer that things are going difficultly, because it exhausts their negative potentials. They prefer that. They prefer abuse to praise. Praise just causes you to be proud, and obscures your own shortcomings, so you can’t improve. If you’re criticized and you’re aware of your shortcomings, then you can work on them to eliminate them. So you welcome criticism and when somebody really points out our difficulties and embarrasses us or whatever, yells at us for something that we’ve been doing that’s been inconsiderate or selfish – much better than everybody treating us as a baby and saying, “Oh, you’re so nice.” Then you don’t learn anything. We need to be challenged in order to grow.

Serkong Rinpoche’s exclusive name for me was “Dummy.” It was very helpful. In all of the nine years I helped him, and translated for him, and wrote his letters, and ran the tasks, and so on, he only thanked me twice – in nine years – very helpful. And he never failed to point out when I was acting stupidly, but I had agreed to that with him. I went to him asking, “Please make a donkey like me into a proper human being.” It’s what I wished. He was very kind. This is the kindest of all.

Obviously, you need to have tested the teacher very, very well. Be sure that they’re perfectly qualified, and that you are perfectly qualified and ready. If the teacher isn’t properly qualified, the teacher doesn’t have equal love and concern for everyone. But [when he criticized me] I never thought, “Oh, he loves me anyway.” That thought didn’t come into my mind. I didn’t try to justify it or anything, I tried to learn from it. Usually my response to it was that it made me laugh nervously. GesheNgawang Dhargyey, my other teacher, who saw that, said, “This is perfect.” He really thought that was very good, the way I handled it.

Who was it, was it Marpa or somebody who was saying, “When my teacher hits me this is the blessing of Heruka?” If somebody is acting like an idiot, it’s like the Zen master hitting you with a stick.

Like waiting for a thank you – Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey used this image and I found it very helpful, that – “What am I doing, sitting there like a dog and waiting to be patted on the head? And then I wag my tail?” This is complete self-cherishing. I helped him because I saw that he was able to help others far more than I could ever do, so the best thing I could do is to help him in order to help others.

It’s like him never teaching me anything. In the very beginning years it was only Kalachakra. At the end, he taught me by myself, but he would never teach me anything unless I translated it for someone else. It couldn’t be just for myself. This was a “treatment” specifically for someone wanting to overcome pride. It’s not so effective for people who have low self-esteem, this would have been totally ineffective. And for a teacher who would just abuse this, absolutely never do this. But this was very helpful for me. I was coming from a PhD. at Harvard; I was one of the top students at Harvard. I had arrogance and pride like you couldn’t believe. It was very helpful.

I’ll give you an example of my idiotic behavior, one of my favorite examples. Once I was translating for Rinpoche in France, and he was editing the text at the same time he was teaching. So, he wanted me to take notes, and I didn’t have a pen with me. So, I asked the person who was sitting in the first row in front of me to loan me a pen, and it was this French woman with very bright red hennaed hair who sat there with big red lipstick on and holding a red rose in her teeth. It was a really strange looking lady, and she sat there with this rose in her mouth the whole teaching. And so she loaned me the pen, and then after the teaching she held her hand out to me. And I was so insensitive and so ridiculous that I went to shake her hand, because I thought that she wanted to shake my hand at the end of the teaching, congratulating me for translating so nicely. And Rinpoche said; “Idiot! Give her the pen back.” I was indeed a donkey.

The next way of doing this is, when others are hurting us, to develop compassion for them, thinking of all the negative karmic potential that they’re building up and the suffering that they would have to experience from acting negatively toward us, and then imagine with tonglen taking that suffering onto ourselves.

“Others harming me are helping me to achieve enlightenment, so I’m indebted to them.” One lama had leprosy and said that, “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.” Not only people, but difficult situations like having leprosy, or breaking your leg, or getting crippled in an accident, or something like that – change it into a circumstance, “Now I can put all my effort into Dharma practice,” rather than getting all depressed by it, and feeling sorry for ourselves, and waiting for everything to be perfect, which will never happen.

Shantideva said, “If something can be remedied, don’t get uptight about it, or very upset about it, just fix it, remedy it, and if it can’t be, then don’t get uptight, because it won’t help.” If suffering comes, and if you can’t eliminate it, don’t get uptight about it, transform it into a help to enlightenment.

Shantideva also said that suffering has good points. It diminishes our pride, we develop the determination to be free from the causes of it – renunciation, we develop compassion for others who are suffering, and by seeing this as a warning, we become cautious about ever acting destructively again, and it motivates us to act in a constructive way if we want to be happy, etc.

Like this we change our attitude toward how we’ve been behaving and how we’re going to behave in the future. That’s the transforming with respect to our attitude toward our thoughts toward how we’ve been behaving.

Then, concerning our way of thoughts, or thinking in terms of our view of reality, is the next line in the text:

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

That’s an example of a line that doesn’t appear in the transmission that came through Tsongkhapa.

This is basically seeing that these deceptive appearances, and the suffering and so on that is based on that, and just my perception of the suffering, is like a deceptive appearance. It has neither true arising, ceasing, or abiding. The deceptive appearances, which are the suffering, the deceptive appearance of it, “Poor me! This is so terrible,” and even the experience itself, the way that it appears, is deceptive. It seems as though it has a truly findable arising, abiding, and ceasing. This is incorrect – understand the voidness of that, it’s not referring to anything real.

We’re not just talking about the deceptive appearance of the thought “Poor me,” we’re talking about the suffering itself, the pain. That’s a deceptive appearance. How it appears to us is deceptive, the disturbing emotion – how it appears to us is deceptive.

They don’t have a findable existent arising – it’s like Dharmakaya doesn’t arise – you see that as Dharmakaya. The omniscient mind of a Buddha is not something which is created. Suffering itself has no truly existent arising, that, “there it was, and then it comes on stage, and arises into our minds.”

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

And 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 that as Nirmanakaya. These are the emanation bodies of a Buddha that are constantly changing. Buddha is constantly appearing in different forms.

The inseparability of these three – not truly existent arising, abiding, or ceasing – this is the Svabhavakaya, the nature body. Within the Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu you have two traditions, what’s called self-voidness and other-voidness. Within their tradition, the self-voidness explanation is like this, and in these three traditions Svabhavakaya, the nature body, is always the inseparability of the three other bodies.

This is a very obscure line, obviously. But when we speak about voidness, about things, the voidness of coming and going – Nagarjuna speaks about that – it’s not as though something truly findably existent as a thing with 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, all three are the case. One can’t be the case and not the others.

This we can see in terms of the four Buddha-bodies. 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, it has these abilities. It doesn’t truly arise, it’s just that it’s like uncovered. The Sambhogakaya, these subtle emanations teach arya bodhisattvas till the end of samsara, [which] by all practical purposes is not going to come, although theoretically it is possible. And so they always say the Sambhogakaya never ceases, goes on forever, whereas Nirmanakaya is constantly changing. Any particular Nirmanakaya is not going to last forever, it’s going to change. That is the non-abiding.

So, we can see these four aspects as the four Buddha-bodies, but actually the line makes far more sense in terms of the other-voidness explanation. Other-voidness is speaking about, basically, the nature of the mind that would understand voidness. 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. That’s one of the deeper teachings, particularly in Karma Kagyu – recognizing the mind as a Buddha. It doesn’t mean that you’re already enlightened.

When we speak in terms of these deceptive appearances, and suffering, and disturbing emotions, they are seen as waves of Dharmakaya, in the sense that they don’t arise from outside, arising as the play of the mind. Their clarity aspect, which is referring to the mind’s aspect of giving rise to appearances, this is something that never ceases, it never stops, so that’s the Sambhogakaya of the mind. The first is the Dharmakaya of the mind, this is the Sambhogakaya of the mind. This clarity aspect is constantly appearing in different forms, so it never abides, it never stays – that’s Nirmanakaya. And it simultaneously is like this and simultaneously, inseparably arising, abiding, and ceasing. This is seeing how thoughts – what you have in the mahamudra and dzogchen methods, although Sakya doesn’t have dzogchen – but you see these things arising, abiding, and ceasing simultaneously, and through that you can get to a deeper level. So, that’s the Svabhavakaya, the inseparability of them.

So, from this other-voidness point of view, the line makes far more sense. This is the “peerless protector.” If we can see the suffering that we’re experiencing and the disturbing emotions and all these things as the four Buddha-bodies, no true arising, abiding, and ceasing, and that it’s just the clarity aspect of the mind giving rise to appearances, not coming from outside, and changing all the time, and that clarity aspect is never ceasing and so on, that’s the way to change our attitude, to transform our negative circumstances into positive ones.

It’s very profound. Very difficult, but very profound. Gelugpas don’t have this. They would feel quite uncomfortable actually with this, although the self-voidness explanation would be acceptable.