We have been speaking about tonglen, giving and taking, as discussed and presented in lojong, the mind training teachings. We find this at the beginning of this text by Dharmarakshita, and also in the beginning of a later text, Seven Point Mind Training by Geshe Chekawa. In both presentations, the emphasis is on deepest bodhichitta as the way to be able to destroy or get rid of self-grasping. This is what we’re actually trying to do with tonglen practice.
Obviously, we’re trying to help others, but in order to do that we have to recognize that the cause of their problems and our own problems is this grasping for an impossible false self or false identity – of us, of others, of suffering, of cause and effect, and of everything. This comes from a long Indian Buddhist tradition including Nagarjuna’s teachings, Shantideva’s teachings, etc.
In Wheel of Sharp Weapons, we are focused on taking on the three poisonous, toxic, disturbing emotions: longing desire, anger and naivety.
Confusion between Love and Longing Desire
We put the main emphasis on longing desire since that is usually singled out as the greatest obstacle to meditation, and specifically to concentration.
It is sometimes confusing for us Westerners because we confuse attachment with love. There is a difference here, particularly in terms of romantic love. The word “attachment” in English has two usages: one is positive, such as in the bond between a mother and a baby. If this sort of positive attachment or feeling of connection between the two isn’t made, it is extremely detrimental to the health of the baby. When we talk about overcoming attachment, we’re not talking about getting rid of a feeling of connectedness with others. That absolutely is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the unhealthy type of attachment, where we exaggerate the good qualities of someone or of something we have, and do not want to let go.
That destructive type of attachment is quite different from love. When we speak about love in Buddhism, we define it as the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. It’s unconditional; it doesn’t matter what the other person does or what they do for us. It does not entail clinging to the person and making demands that they never leave us.
Differentiating between a Person and Their Behavior
In dealing with others, we need to differentiate clearly between the person and their behavior. The person is an imputation on their behavior, but also on everything else as well, like their body, their mind, etc. If they act in a destructive type of way, we need to reject that behavior and see it as something that they need to overcome. But we don’t lose the wish for the person to be happy and to stop acting destructively so that they don’t continue to build up the causes to be unhappy and to suffer.
There’s a big difference, then, between a person and their behavior. We don’t want to identify and solidify the person with their negative behavior. Similarly, when we love somebody, we also don’t want to identify them with their behavior, as in, “I love you as long as you’re nice to me, and if you’re not nice to me, I don’t love you anymore.” That’s not what we’re talking about with love in Buddhism.
Remember the defining characteristics of longing desire: it exaggerates the good qualities of someone, adds good qualities that aren’t there, and ignores the negative side. Because of that, it doesn’t actually deal with the reality of the person. People aren’t objects that we can possess. When we have love for someone in the Buddhist sense, we don’t want to possess them, as in “You are mine” and then act as if we owned them. We can develop this type of destructive attitude in many types of relationships. It can be in the family, “You are my child and you have to obey me,” or it can be in a work situation, “You are my employee, and you have to do what I say.”
Possessiveness is all about “me” and “mine.” It’s based on grasping for a solidly existing “me” that can possess a solidly existent “you” or a solidly existing “thing” as “mine.” This possessiveness comes along with one of the strongest root disturbing attitudes, the one I call a “deluded outlook toward a transitory network” (’jig-lta). It’s a terrible term, but there’s no easy way of translating the Sanskrit or Tibetan word. If we look at the definition, it’s an attitude that’s aimed at the network of our ever-changing aggregates – the body, mind, everything we perceive, the emotions and so on. What this attitude does, in a sense, is throw out a net onto them. The net is the concepts of a solidly existing “me” and “mine,” which come from self-grasping.
We do this all the time. For instance, we throw the net of the concept of a solidly existing “me” onto some aspect of our aggregates – for instance our looks, our wealth, our intelligence, or whatever – and take that as the solid identity of this solidly existing “me.” And we likewise cast the net of the concept of “mine” onto some other aspects of our aggregates – for instance, another person that we interact with, like our partner, child or employee – and take them to have the solid identity of “mine.” This is “me” and you are “mine.” We catch them in our net of the concept of a solidly existent “mine” and hold on to them strongly as if they will never change and will always be our possession. Our longing desire for someone and attachment to them is based on this deluded outlook and the possessiveness it entails, and that comes from self-grasping.
A common variant of this deluded attitude is there when we look at ourselves in the mirror and we see we’re overweight and getting grey. We have thrown the net of a solidly existent “me” onto another self-image and grasp at that to be “me” and what we see in the mirror, “That’s not me!” Or, we look at what the scale shows when we weigh ourselves and we say, “That can’t be me.” We have this very unrealistic idea of “me.” This is part of self-grasping.
Ridding Ourselves of Self-Grasping
If we’re going to successfully practice tonglen or any other practices aimed at getting rid of this self-grasping for a false “me,” we need to recognize that such grasping leads to these disturbing emotions and attitudes. We need to identify these disturbing emotions and see that they don’t work as mechanisms for making something secure, since what they aim to make secure can’t possibly be made secure. A solidly existent, false “me” can’t be made secure because it doesn’t exist. Grasping for one only brings suffering.
What makes tonglen aimed at the disturbing emotions difficult is that we don’t want to do it. We grasp for a “me” that doesn’t want to experience our suffering, let alone the suffering of others. We don’t even acknowledge that we have suffering, as though there were a “me” that’s separate from all of what we experience. It’s as if our suffering were a room: I come into the room and now experience it, and then go out of the room. Or I don’t even want to go into that room, so here I am. It could be described as a dualistic feeling; there are many ways of describing it. It’s as if there is a “me” that exists all on its own, isolated from everything. Believing that this corresponds to reality then leads to feeling that I don’t want to deal with you; I don’t even want to deal with me. It’s this type of thing.
We have a very strong habit and tendency to feel like that. It’s very insidious. It’s not just that we believe this, it feels like this. That’s what makes it so compelling. When we have this voice in our head, it feels as though there’s “me” inside there talking, complaining. “What should I do now?” Then we make a decision as if we press a button inside and operate this machine, this body, and that certainly is not the way it is.
We have that tendency: “I don’t want to take on your suffering. I don’t want to take on these poisonous attitudes of everyone.” This feeling ripens from karmic tendencies and the tendency to grasp for an impossible “me.” What is it that prevents us from wanting to help others to deal with their suffering? It is because of all the various things we experience that are ripening from our destructive behavior.
Karmic Cause and Effect
Let’s look at the second section of the text, which deals with karma. Karma is this compulsion that drives us to act in a way that is similar to our past behavior and to encounter things happening to us that are similar to what we did before.
If we want to stop and get rid of these obstructions that block us from helping ourselves and others, we need to first stop our destructive behavior. When we start to feel like doing something, we need to discriminate: Is this helpful or is this harmful, beneficial or detrimental? We have the freedom to decide whether or not we do it. If it’s going to be harmful, don’t do it. This first level of eliminating our destructive behavior entails using self-control. But we also want to counter it with something positive – constructive behavior instead.
When we lack discrimination and self-control, we act out of this compulsion. How it’s described is that an impulse draws us into actually doing an action. Once the impulse is activated, we don’t have control over it; we just do it. We can only prevent the impulse from arising when we merely feel like doing or saying something. Acting out our compulsive impulses leaves karmic aftermath on our mental continuum.
There are several varieties of karmic aftermath, but we don’t need to go into all the details. For instance, we build up karmic tendencies to repeat our past behavior. In the West, we talk about neural pathways. When we strengthen a neural pathway by repeated similar types of behavior, the tendency to act in that manner once more becomes easier and easier. Also, we to get into situations in which we experience things similar to what we did to others happening to us. We don’t usually make this connection in our Western way of looking at things, but this is more what Dharmarakshita is talking about in this section. It is this second type of ripening that is similar to the causes.
Aspects of Karmic Aftermath
In the first type of ripening that is similar to its cause, the karmic aftermath ripens into a feeling of liking or wanting to repeat the action. We want to look at our phone again; we want to yell at somebody again; we want to deal with something in a very selfish way, because we’ve done that before and we’re accustomed to that. It’s almost like our default setting. It can also be more positive behavior, such as perfectionist types of actions. We want to clean the house yet again, or correct our paper yet again, even though we’ve gone over it so many times. However, when we feel like repeating our previous types of behavior or want to do it again, then, as I said, we do have the space to decide yes or no. This first case is a little bit easier to deal with.
In the second case of ripening that is similar to its cause, the karmic tendency also ripens into a feeling like doing something, for instance looking at our phones while crossing the street. Compulsively we do that and what happens is this acts as a circumstance for us to experience getting hit by a car. This is quite important to understand in terms of the ripening of this karmic aftermath. Our karmic aftermath doesn’t cause the other person to hit us. Often, we have that misunderstanding, thinking, “I’m responsible for what you did. It’s all my fault.” This’s not the case.
The karmic aftermath ripens into our experiencing being hit. It’s their karmic aftermath that ripens into them hitting us. When we discuss the ripening of karma, we are talking about what we experience. For example, we experience having this type of body; that’s another thing that ripens from karmic aftermath. We experience having this type of body that is going to grow old and fall apart and die. That’s just part of the uncontrollably recurring aspect of samsara.
We grow old, we get sick, and we die with this limited body and limited mind, which can’t understand everything. We’re helpless as a baby with the very inefficient type of body that we have at that time. It’s really incredible that such a limited body and mind work and function at all: but on the other hand, having this type of limited body and limited mind has a lot of flaws. We have this term “sentient being.” A Buddha is not a sentient being, not someone with a limited mind or as I also call it, “limited hardware.”
But, to get back to this ripening that it is similar to the cause in what we experience, we get into situations in which we experience things happening to us similar to what we did to others by feeling like doing something and the impulse to do it. That makes us get into a situation, for instance, always being attracted to a partner who abuses us: somebody that is always going to yell at us, and so on. When get attracted to someone. Why do we feel attracted to this one and not that one? That’s the ripening of karma. Compulsively we pursue that type of relationship and then we experience that they are cruel to us, they yell at us, they don’t treat us nicely, and so on.
This is how we experience this ripening of karma. It’s not simply that we experience getting angry and yelling at people, and so we always continue to yell at people. It’s this second aspect of karmic ripening similar to its cause that Dharmarakshita is going to focus on. We need to build up more positive habits, more positive neural pathways, so that they will ripen into getting into situations in which things work out and go well on a regular basis.
When positive force is built up, we need to dedicate that positive force toward enlightenment with bodhichitta. Doing so acts as a cause that will bring us to enlightenment, rather than as a cause to just make for a nicer samsara. We need to have a nicer samsara in the sense that if we’re overwhelmed with starvation or living in a war zone and so on, there’s very little that we can do.
We want better situations, but that’s not the ultimate aim. That’s just a provisional step along the way. Bodhichitta is really essential here.
In the end, it comes down to the fact that we are our own worst enemies. We are the creators of our own happiness and the creators of our own unhappiness. We can’t place the blame on others; we need to place the blame on ourselves. This is not in the sense of a solidly existent “me,” and we put all the blame on it, and therefore, “I’m guilty and I’m bad and all of that.” It is not in that sense at all.
We see that self-cherishing, “I am the most important one; I always have to have my way” – this is the problem. It’s based on believing that this “me” that always have to have its way is a solidly existent thing.
Dharmarakshita puts it nicely:
(46) In short then, whenever unfortunate sufferings we haven’t desired crash upon us like thunder, this is the same as the smith who had taken his life with a sword he had fashioned himself. Our suffering’s the wheel of sharp weapons returning full circle upon us from wrongs we have done. Hereafter let’s always have care and awareness never to act in non-virtuous ways.
In this second section, then, Dharmarakshita goes through a long, long list of negative things that happen to us. Dharmarakshita sums up the second section, by saying that basically we are like the person who makes swords, who is killed by a sword he has made. That’s the summary.
I would like to spend time on some of the verses in text, working with them, although we don’t have enough time to go through them all. I think this is really how we can best work with this text. We can see how some of these syndromes that are explained in each of these verses might apply to us and see that this is what is preventing us from being able to help others with tonglen practice, or just to help others just in general. We can see that we’re always getting into difficult situations, and because we’re in these difficult situations, it prevents us from helping others.
I’ve chosen a few verses for us. Let’s spend some time on each of them, contemplating and seeing if each makes sense in terms of our own experience. Does it give us a clue to what to work on?
Using Harsh, Abusive Language
(14) When we hear only language that is foul and abusive, this is the wheel of sharp weapons returning full circle upon us from wrongs we have done. Till now we have said many things without thinking; we have slandered and caused many friendships to end. Hereafter let’s censure all thoughtless remarks.
When we hear people saying nasty things to us, saying cruel things to us, making fun of us, criticizing us all the time – when we hear these sorts of nasty things, this is the wheel of sharp weapons coming back to us. It’s the result of us saying nasty things about others.
We say nasty things about others and then we compulsively get into situations in which we encounter people who are going to say nasty things to us – it happens back to us. If we want to break that syndrome, which is just repeating and repeating itself, we have to first recognize in ourselves that we say nasty things to other people. “I say cruel things.” The text says to censure or discredit all faults in our speech.
Instead of saying nasty things, say positive things about others, or at least neutral things about others. Atisha said it very nicely in A Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems:
(28) When in the midst of many, let me keep a check on my speech; when remaining alone, let me keep a check on my mind.
We have to be careful what we say. If it’s going to be something nasty or something stupid, don’t say it. Hold your tongue, as we say in English, and try to say positive things.
Let’s examine ourselves. Especially if we find people say nasty things to us, are we saying nasty things to others at all? Are we thinking nasty things, even? Then we make this decision hereafter to censure all thoughtless remarks.
An Example of How Our Harsh Speech Is an Obstacle
Speaking about being judgmental, we might not want to help somebody, even if they’re suffering, and we say, “You deserve that. You’re no good; you’re lazy and that’s why you don’t go to work and you’re hungry.” and so on. We don’t want to help them or take on their problems because we have this tendency to say nasty things about them and to think nasty things about them. Try to connect this with what is preventing us from really helping others.
Also, obviously, if everybody is saying we’re stupid and saying nasty things to us, it’s very hard, then, to be positive. It’s easy to get discouraged. We want to change that pattern. That’s the first step to be able to do these advanced practices like tonglen, these bodhisattva practices.
Guided Meditation on Foul, Abusive Language
Let’s take a moment to think about this first topic, which is saying nasty things about others. We don’t necessarily have to say it to their faces; often we say it behind their backs. We’re very good at saying nasty things about various politicians, aren’t we?
Again, there’s a big difference between recognizing that a politician, for example, or just somebody is doing something destructive and wanting that to stop. There’s a big difference between that and saying nasty words to them or about them. Those are quite different, aren’t they? We can still wish for the person to be happy while also wishing for them to stop doing the destructive things they’re doing. We have to discriminate.
Try to recognize, behind saying nasty and cruel words, are we exaggerating the negative qualities of someone or something? That aspect, as our motivating emotion, is actually anger. “So terrible! Worst thing in the world!” and so we say nasty things about it. We identify the person with what they’re doing: “You’re bad! You’re so horrible because what you do is so horrible!” This is throwing out the net of “you” and “yours”; it’s the same thing as “me” and “mine.”
Recognize how, if we are compulsively saying nasty things about others, why would we want to take on their problems and help them? It’s a big obstacle to wanting to do that.
When somebody has been verbally very nasty toward us, how do we respond? When they’re not around, do we say nasty things about them? How do we deal with that type of situation? That type of experience is what we are talking about.
Think about it and reflect about experiences with this person who is always so nasty toward us, and what they said to us, yelling at us, and criticizing us, and making fun of us in front of others, and so on. How do we speak about them afterwards with others?
Can we just transform that, and say, well, this person had a lot of problems and it made them act in very unpleasant ways? But, they also have very good qualities too, and in that way, not hold a grudge, and not speak badly about them?
If we speak badly about them, this is a karmic cause for encountering and getting, involved with people who will speak badly to us. That’s the wheel of sharp weapons coming back like a boomerang to us.
Guided Meditation on Interrupting Others
Let’s examine ourselves. Do we do this?
When we send an email or a message, or call somebody on the phone – older people still like to use the phone and actually speak to somebody – do we expect that they’re going to drop everything and speak to us? We send a message and we expect that the recipient is going to drop everything and answer us immediately. Do we get angry and impatient when they don’t, as in, “Why haven’t you answered me!?”
It’s really funny. Within the core team of my work, we have one messaging service that we use to communicate with each other. There’s one person on the team who writes and then he turns it off. He doesn’t wait for me to answer; I find that terribly frustrating. I answer and I have to wait until later when he turns the messaging service back on, looks at it, and then answers. This is the type of thing that we need to examine. Do I expect that I’m so important, “me, me, me,” this solid “me,” that you have to drop everything and answer me instantly because I’m more important than what you’re doing?
Of course, the karmic consequences are that we’re never going to accomplish anything, because we are multitasking and getting interrupted and distracted and so on.
This habit of interrupting others is very delicate actually. There are two situations: one is interrupting others with something meaningless and the other thing is if we’re working as part of a team and need to communicate with each other to ask somebody to do this or that in order for us to be able to continue what we’re doing.
I face this all the time. Someone on the team has a question regarding the work they are doing, and if I don’t answer immediately then it delays their work. But, the result of that, at least in my case, is that I’m never actually able to accomplish what I need to do because I’m answering everybody’s questions.
When I need something from them, likewise, I certainly don’t like to be kept waiting. It can be a very difficult situation to deal with that in a work situation. One is to not to send work-related emails after work hours or on the weekend; however, I don’t work at set hours. I basically work all the time and I don’t take weekends off, or things like that. If I’m doing something on the weekend, my thought is that if I don’t ask them to do it now, I will have forgotten by Monday.
But, if I send the email they might get annoyed, or not look at it. I’m guilty of this. In universities you have office hours, and if students want to come and ask questions, these are the designated times. Other than that, students can’t come and bother anyone. That doesn’t work when you’re working in a team, does it?
In terms of these emails, when it’s outside of work hours, it isn’t a bad idea to put it in the outbox and send it Monday morning. Be patient about not being able to get an answer over the weekend, or at night when working late. That’s very tough. We need to ask individual team members what their customs are and respect that.
One guideline, at least with personal conversations that are not work related, is to start out with asking, “Are you busy?” or “Do you have a moment?” If a person is busy, ask that they let you know when it would be a good time to call back and have a chat. This is, I think, a very helpful strategy.
But that “me, me, me,” wanting that instant gratification – not in terms of instant gratification of getting a “like” on a Facebook page – but the instant gratification of getting an answer to something that we need in order to be able to continue our work, that’s tough.
In our modern society in which we are multitasking all the time, it really is very hard to accomplish anything, isn’t it? How do we deal with that, when everybody else is multitasking?
What’s your experience? Do you work in a team?
My experience is that there’s a difference between sending an email and expecting it to be read and answered. I work in the government: I am not in private enterprise. And I used to get text messages and emails sent by my senior officer during night and on the weekend as well, but we had a mutual agreement. She just wanted to get it off her chest as she had a huge workload and worked so many hours. However, she didn’t expect me to answer it. Of course, I had to accept that because she was the boss, but I could see that she was working hard.
If people try not to get their job emails during the weekends, then they won’t even check. I think it’s a matter of expectations. If they think that they have to answer immediately, then they get frustrated. An understanding can be arranged to send emails out so that the flow in work isn’t stopped, and not expect others to have to open it before Monday, and that’s fine.
I think that’s very wise. But then we have to negotiate what works and what doesn’t work with each member of the team.
We can also turn off that notification sound. I always mute that sound, because then I feel like I’m in an experiment, you know? Nobody should have to have these sounds on.
Mute your mobile device or your laptop so that it doesn’t make that sound when we get a message. Almost instinctively we feel that we have to reply. Again, this idea that “I don’t want to miss something, maybe it’s important.”
I work with my team in a similar way as mentioned and I think it works quite well. We don’t expect others to read emails during the night time and on the weekends, but if something is really urgent, we text.
Correct; we have to set up some convention. I know in my work, if the website goes down, I have to contact my technical guy to restart the server, otherwise it’s down for the whole weekend. There are certain things that are very urgent. Again, we have to negotiate according to the schedules and circumstances. Some people might only work at night and don’t work in the morning. Each person is different.
I found it’s a good idea to discipline myself. I don’t have to say something the moment I think it and disturb a person. If I’m afraid of forgetting it, I write it down and then say it when it’s appropriate, instead of the moment that it comes up. That can be very disturbing.
Right; we can note it down or write the email and put it in the Outbox and not send it. There are certain strategies that we can do. There are two sides to this: the compulsion to interrupt people, wanting to send a communication and get an instant answer, and the compulsion to look into and answer anything that comes into our inbox. This is hard to resist. Even if people turn off the sound so that they don’t hear it coming in, they are often still checking their phone all the time. It becomes addictive that we’re always looking. This is difficult.
There’s also the problem if we don’t answer as emails come in, we get blasted with surprises and problems first thing Monday morning.
The problem that I have supervising about fifty-four people – and others who supervise large groups of people might also have – is if I don’t answer and take care of things as they come in, I phrase it that “I get punished,” because then I have fifty emails to answer at once and it’s just overwhelming. How to make that balance? It’s very difficult. The more that we indulge in it, the more it happens.
Dealing with karma is not very easy, but at least we have these guidelines from the text to help us.