Questions to Dr. Berzin about Lower Realms and Helping Others

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Fear of Death and Lower Realms

I wanted to ask something about fear. Rinpoche said that we can develop fear for states of rebirth that can come to us after death. I was thinking that fear is suffering too. Are we making ourselves suffer for something that may or may not happen after death? Isn’t that a little bit strange?

Not really. No one is saying that the ultimate aim is to generate this state of fear. This state of fear is to motivate us to take care of something. It is like having a child that needs to learn not to run out into the street. In order to be motivated to look both ways and be careful, the child has to develop a little bit of fear of being hit by a car. 

Another point is to recognize that, in fact, this state of fear exists even if we don’t recognize it. The fear of dying, for instance, is very easily demonstrated by putting our head in a bucket of water, keeping it underwater until we run out of breath, and then seeing whether or not we are afraid of dying, and whether or not we lift our head out. We do lift our head out. Nobody likes to run out of air. In general, the aim is not to have everybody trembling with fear. Instead, the purpose is to recognize that we are afraid of death and just to think about it more seriously.

It seems more of a negative motivation. Could we just think that we all have Buddha-nature in ourselves and try to develop that? Isn’t it better to be motivated by something we do want instead of something we don’t want? 

What about being motivated by both of those? The whole point is to get as motivated as possible and to try to do it in quite a dramatic way so that we actually do it. 

Why is there so much stress on not being reborn in the lower states?

We need to look at both sides of the issue. If we act very negatively, then there are consequences. However, if we act in a positive way, then what follows is something different. We just look at the advantages and disadvantages of both sides of the issue. The whole generation of wisdom, of discriminating awareness, is to look at both sides of every issue and see what the advantages and disadvantages are of both sides and, with our eyes fully open, choose what is going to be more beneficial for ourselves and for others. In Buddhism, in this whole teaching, we don’t want to whitewash anything. There are a lot of things in life that are rather nasty, and we want to open our eyes, look at them, and decide very clearly that we don’t want this. 

Isn’t that the same as in the Christian church? They say that if you act badly, then you go to hell, and that is why you have to act right. 

The interesting point is why do you react negatively to that? You stated that is just like in the Christian church where they teach that if you act badly you go to hell and, you don’t want this, so you shouldn’t act badly. Now, I can react to that and say, “That is great, and they say something similar in Buddhism.” On the other hand, I could react and say, “They say that in the Christian church, and it is no good.” Why react negatively to that? What is it exactly that you are reacting negatively to? For instance, it might be being forced by parents to go to church and listen when you didn’t want to do this. Or is it that we don’t want to take seriously torturous pain, whether experienced by ourselves or others, and the possibility that we might experience it even in this lifetime? This is a useful point to take a look at.

Is it important to practice in the Tibetan language?

No. We can do the sadhana, and all these things, in our own language. The point is not to do it in some exotic language. Buddha didn’t teach it in Tibetan, did he? The point seems to be that we don’t like to do something that we don’t understand or to be told there is something that we should do. Rather, it seems we want to be motivated to do it ourselves. Motivation either arises from no cause, or it arises for some cause. These are the two possibilities. 

If we think about it, motivations don’t come from nothing. We are motivated to do something because of something, because of thinking about something. If someone tells us that we can motivate ourselves if we think like this and this and this, then that can be helpful if we try it out. This is how we all come to learn things. How do we come to know things in general? The only way is by learning them from someone else, either from a book that someone has written or from listening to someone speak. 

What about learning from doing things?

Yes, we can learn from doing things; however, we have to know what possibilities exist and we wouldn’t know that unless we saw examples. But the ability to learn from these examples doesn’t come from other people. It comes from being open, listening, looking and seeing what is there. To develop the different types of motivation that Buddhism is talking about is not a matter of doing it our way. It is a matter of whether or not we are open enough to learn from other people. 

In terms of thinking about the suffering of the lower realms, let’s not talk so much about the hells and the ghosts. Those are difficult to relate to because we don’t actually see them. However, just because we can’t see them is not a sufficient logical reason to say they don’t exist. Still, because it is difficult to prove they do exist, let’s put them aside for the moment and think about animals. We can see animals. 

Think about what it is like to be an animal. Imagine being a cockroach and everybody who sees you says, “Yuck,” and just wants to step on you. It would be absolutely horrible to be like a cockroach. Buddhism states that this and that destructive action is the cause for being reborn as a cockroach. If we don’t want to be reborn as a cockroach, we should stop doing certain things. 

It is relevant, of course, how someone is explaining that point and their motivation in telling it to us. This will affect whether or not we will listen to the person. Our taking this teaching seriously and learning it depends both being open and also on how it is presented. It could be given in a very forceful and dogmatic way, or it could be given in a very compassionate way, like trying to teach children that if they play with matches, they are likely to burn themselves. It is a matter of being open and listening to these things. 

The Buddha and the great Buddhist masters are not saying these things just to scare us. That is not the reason for their saying it. They are saying it because they saw this to be the case. For instance, if we always act on animal desires, we build up the habit to continue to be in that sort of state of mind and generate that type of rebirth. This builds up a habit that undoubtedly builds on a habit from the past. For example, look at a dog in heat. It is a less common example in the West, but in India, we see it very clearly. There are packs of wild dogs running around and, when there is a female dog in heat, there is fighting and horrible scenes. We can look at this and say, “I don’t want to get into that type of mentality!” 

We need to open our eyes and see the difficulties that exist, such as these in an animal realm, and then we can understand just by analogy what are the causes. If we act like that, this is the consequence. The logical conclusion is that this is the type of mentality we generate from that type of behavior. Perhaps “fear” is a poor choice of words because it has such a bad connotation, but it is sort of generating the feeling of “I don’t want that.” 

What about repulsion?

Repulsion has another connotation, disgust. But here, we simply don’t want it. We don’t want something bad to happen to us. For example, I don’t want to be hit by a car; I don’t want to have a stroke and become paralyzed; I don’t want to get cancer and suffer a horrible death.  

Building Up Levels of Motivation

Is it that, for example, you only wish to be good to other people because if not, you would be reborn as a rat? If this is your reason for being good to other people, I think this isn’t such a good motivation.

That is why there are different levels of motivation. In the teachings, here, it is a graded path of building up more and more sophisticated types of motivation. There are three levels, and the first is that we don’t want to act destructively because there will be bad consequences. For example, we will be reborn as an animal. We have to acknowledge that this is, in fact, a motivation for some people, and that motivation can help us to stop hurting others. 

However, it is not a very noble motivation and so, as the teachings continue, they say that it’s not the best motivation. Although it works, it is not a good motivation. A better motivation is to not engage in destructive activities because they are going to keep us in uncontrollably recurring existence, and we are going to experience suffering no matter where we are. This is a higher level of motivation. 

It is still very selfish.

Exactly. The next point is that it is very selfish, and so we refrain from do something destructive because it hurts the other person. Nobody likes to suffer. If we really want to be able to help people, not only should we not hurt them, but we should also try to train ourselves as well as possible to have the full qualifications to be able to really help them. Therefore, we have three levels of motivation. 

A lot of people can’t do this. They can’t all of a sudden go out and truly want to help absolutely everybody in the world. For a lot of people, that is very hard to do. That is why we have the graded levels of motivation, starting with the lowest one of fearing negative consequences in the future. However, we can’t skip over the lower motivations and just immediately have a higher motivation. There is a lot associated with the lower motivations that, when skipped over, cause the higher ones to become very shaky. 

The Importance of Belief in Future Lives

The basis for the lower, initial motivation is belief in future rebirths, and the fact that we will have to experience the consequences of what we do now in a future life. This initial motivation emphasizes that we shouldn’t be concerned only with this life, but rather think in terms of very long lengths of time. In fact, we have to think of a whole process of infinite lifetimes. Basically, we need to be very careful about what we do. Certainly, we can do things now and not experience the results in this lifetime; nonetheless, at some point in time they are going to catch up with us. If we skip over the initial motivation for a higher one with the attitude that we are just going to do good for everybody and things like that, then after a while, that motivation is not going to be very strong. We won’t have a firm basis for turning our interest away from only this lifetime. There are going to be some holes in it. 

Of course, we may come to realize that this lower motivation is not a very noble motivation. It is a rather self-centered motivation, but at least we need to try to gain some feeling for the whole context of it in order to go beyond. This whole idea of thinking in terms of future lives has so much importance as a basis of all the teachings. If we don’t consider and think about that very seriously, so many other things in the teachings are not going to make much sense.

For instance, in terms of helping all others, we do this because everybody has been kind to us. This includes all beings; everybody has been kind to us. If we only consider this lifetime, we might find people who are actually very cruel to us. Nonetheless, in terms of an infinite amount of time in the past, and an infinite amount of time in the future, we can see that everybody’s position constantly changes. In this lifetime, somebody can be our friend at one point and then they do something that causes difficulty for us, and they become our enemy. 

Likewise, in terms of past lifetimes, you have been my mother. I have a mother or father or somebody in this lifetime that has been kind to me, otherwise I would have died in infancy, just as in past lifetimes somebody else has been equally as kind to me. This way of thinking helps us to start attaining a state of equanimity in which we don’t favor one person over another. There are a lot of things involved in developing this motivation and really trying to integrate that into the way that we look at life. That is all part of the teachings here on this first level. 

Unlocking the Way We Relate to People

This process takes lots of time.

It really does, but the texts say that we shouldn’t expect it to take a short time or to be easy. When some of these ideas really start to sink in and affect the way we look at things, it makes a huge change, a huge difference in how we relate to people. This is especially true in terms of being open to other people. We don’t just see people in the position they are in during this lifetime. Most people are locked into a way of looking at the world in which this is the only lifetime we have. For instance, they may think that we can only be friendly with people our age and shouldn’t pay much attention to older people. We might feel that if we are friendly with people who are much younger, it is a little bit strange. Whomever we feel close to, if it doesn’t quite fit in with the social standards, we feel uncomfortable or whatever. There are all these types of problems that go on and on. 

We might experience a lot of problems in terms of growing old, trying to look younger and not accepting what happens in life. However, if we think in terms of infinite lifetimes and that it is just at this particular moment that we happen to be this particular age, then so what? We have been all different ages at all different times. Therefore, we can understand and relate to people of all different ages. We are getting older. So what? In the next lifetime, we start out being young again. It is just a cycle, so there’s no need to be upset about being any particular age. 

Regarding the different people that we are very friendly with, undoubtedly if there is a very strong connection now, then we must have also been connected with them in the past. Let’s say this person is forty years older than we are now in this lifetime, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be very friendly and have a warm, loving relation with them. Maybe in the last lifetime they were younger than us, and we were the older person. Maybe we were the same age. Maybe at one point, in one lifetime, we were the same sex, and in different lifetimes we were the opposite sex.

All possibilities are possible. From this perspective, when we meet someone new, it doesn’t matter how old or what sex or color they are, or from what social position or country they come, because in the past they have been something different. We have been something different. We can relate to people in terms of a mind stream, a continuity of a mental continuum, rather than exactly how they appear now. When we look at people this way, it makes a huge difference to how we perceive the world. It allows us to start helping people in a much more open, unbiased way. All of this comes from thinking about these things on the initial level. It is useful. It helps to make our life and our relationships much easier. 

Are there a certain number of consciousnesses?

Is there a fixed number? Yes, in the sense that it is finite. There is a finite but uncountable number of sentient beings, but gradually this number is getting smaller because some are becoming enlightened. Not terribly many, but some are becoming enlightened. “Sentient being” or “limited being” is a technical term referring to every being that reincarnates under the power of karma, disturbing emotions and attitudes. Technically, a Buddha is not a sentient or limited being in that sense. I am using the term “limited being” because a lot of people find the word “sentient” difficult to understand. A Buddha isn’t considered a limited being because, although alive and functioning, a Buddha is out of being under the control of the force of karma, disturbing emotions and attitudes. Additionally, the number of limited beings is finite, because new life streams aren’t being created. There is no creator. They are all beginningless.

Different Types of Unawareness

What exactly is the difference between the general unawareness of samsara, and the unawareness of stupidity of an animal?

There are two terms in Tibetan. First is marigpa, which literally means unawareness in Tibetan. One is not aware of cause and effect and, on a deeper level, not aware of reality. Out of unawareness, then, one acts with desire or anger. That is the basic unawareness. It is the unawareness of cause and effect and the true way in which things exist. Without understanding voidness with bare cognition, we have this marigpa, or unawareness.  

The stupidity of an animal is something that includes unawareness, the root of samsara, but there is more involved. The term for this is timug in Tibetan. This can be translated as “naivety,” but also as “closed-mindedness” or “closed-minded unawareness.” We find this very strongly with animals, but a lot of people have it also. It involves putting a wall around oneself and not wanting to look at or hear things. For example, “Don’t tell me about it, I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear about the hells, forget it.” We just close ourselves off. 

Another example of timug might be if we are riding in our car and somebody has just had an accident. They are lying on the road in a pool of blood, and we choose not to get involved. It is just too horrible, and so we drive on. This is the sort of closed-mindedness when we put up a wall around ourselves. Another example is when people feel very threatened by others. They become very stiff or awkward and this closes them off from being open and relating to other people. In a sense, they construct an obscuration, a wall of defense and protection so as not to deal, see or look at things. 

With animals, there are a lot of things going on. First, animals are obsessed in the sense that they are under the very strong influence of instincts. They don’t really think for themselves. For instance, an animal is really only interested in obtaining food. This is one of the primary concerns on an animal’s mind. For example, the way that we are able to teach dolphins tricks is that almost every 30 seconds they are rewarded with a fish. For everything that they do, they are rewarded with food. It is primarily this get-food mentality that motivates them to do a particular aspect of a learned behavior. 

Animals instinctively are additionally driven by self-defense, sex drive, or some other very strong instinct. They are closed off in the sense that they can’t be open to other things because these forces are just too strong on their mental continuum. It certainly includes an unawareness of cause and effect and the nature of reality, marigpa; nonetheless, they have these other huge blocks in their minds that prevent them from being open to other things. Their instincts are just so strong. 

Speaking in terms of karmic tendencies and actions that build them up, if we allow ourselves to be totally ruled by animal instincts and don’t think of anything else, we generate the state of mind that is going to degenerate into a being that only lives by instincts. 

Is everything much more solid and fixed in fact for an animal?

Yes. The clearest example is how many animals live in terms of territories. Every animal sets up a territory that is their territory. We can see this in a house where we have two cats or two dogs in a neighborhood. They have a clear area that is their territory, and they are the boss and have constructed a wall around this delineated area. This is where they are allowed to be, and if another dog comes into the area they bark and do all sorts of horrible things. It is like creating a wall. We do the same things. Actually, it is interesting to see how people also set up territories and don’t really want anybody to violate them. 

Helping Others

Knowing that we are now a human being and that it is most likely that we will go to the hell realms, is it possible to prepare for the hell realms in order to be able to be less attached to the way the hell realm beings are living, and from there try to reach enlightenment? Is it possible?  

It is most likely not going to happen if we do something about it to avoid it. If we don’t do anything about it, then surely it will happen. But we don’t need to book a reservation. There are different things that are involved. We can look at it on different levels. I wouldn’t look at it, thinking that there is no way to prevent it. We might think that we are going to go to a hell anyway and so we might as well get ready for it by putting our hand in a fire, and things like that, so that it is not going to be so bad. That might be one way of looking at it, but I have never heard of that approach. 

There are other ways we can look at this that are more helpful. They say, for instance, that we should be willing to go to a hell for the sake of helping other beings. That is something quite different. Let’s examine the account of the Buddha as the captain of a boat in a previous lifetime. There were five hundred passengers, and one of them was going to murder everybody else in order to steal their wealth, and so the Buddha took the responsibility upon himself to take the life of one person in order to save the lives of everybody else. He did this, taking upon himself full responsibility for the act and being willing to go to a hell because of it, in order to help other people. In that sense, we would be prepared to go. We don’t want these other people to suffer and die, and we don’t want this man to steal and commit mass murder and thereby to go to a hell. We are willing to go to a hell instead in order to help others. To develop this type of willingness is a positive thing. 

Of course, this story might be a bit extreme and dramatic for most of us. Perhaps it’s a difficult thing to actually relate to and might just be taken in a glib way, in that we don’t really take it seriously. Let’s try to think of an instance of something that we might see in our own lives. Let’s say somebody has really bad problems and is in a very difficult situation. They are in a real mess with the law or with their parents, and they come to us for help. We should be willing to take on this person’s problem in order to help them, although a lot of people might say that they don’t want to get involved because it is too messy.

If we are going to practice helping others and taking on the suffering of others, that means we should be willing to get involved, to go with that person to court or to the hospital or whatever is needed. We should be willing to actually help sort things out and help the person through their problems. In a sense, these examples illustrate this idea of being prepared to go to hell. Basically, in order to help others, we should be willing to actually get involved with some dirty things that really aren’t very pleasant to get involved with. We are willing to go with them to court, to the lawyers, to the police, to the hospital, or whatever is required to help them.

Using these examples, rather than saying, “I am willing to go to hell for somebody,” which sounds very nice but actually we don’t do anything, is much more relevant for how we should try to train ourselves. Even if a lot of unpleasant things are involved in helping somebody, we should be willing to take them on.

Sometimes I get so involved in other people’s garbage that it takes all of my energy. What if I am just exhausted and worn out and even upset about it? 

The teachings describe all sorts of fantastic acts that bodhisattvas do to help others, but they also say that we can only really do that when we have developed ourselves to a very high degree. At that level, we are able to sacrifice ourselves without any second thoughts. We have so much positive energy that no matter whom we are with, it doesn’t drain us, and we are always able to generate positive energy. 

We have to realistically see where we are and how much we can withstand, and practice at our own level. The teachings don’t say that we should all chop off our arms and feed them to tigers, even if the Buddha was able to do that. If we are able to do that, okay; however, if we are not that evolved, we don’t do it. In that situation, we would develop many more negative effects than positive. The point where we get in trouble is when we start thinking, “If I do this, I am going to get so tired or depressed.” When our mind starts on that track, we are immediately limited. We have to slowly try to build up our endurance. 

But sometimes I get depressed and start thinking, how did this come about? Isn’t it caused by all the negative things coming from other people? Then I just have to say, “I cannot get involved.” Doesn’t that mean that sometimes I have to say “No” to people?

We have to see what our personal limits are and see how much we can take. If we feel overwhelmed, there are different ways of helping people and handling situations. Instead of saying, “Oh, I can’t take it, leave me alone,” we could say, “I really would like to help you, but sorry, I am incapable at the moment. However, maybe I can help to find somebody else who can help you. I can give you some suggestions.” Still, there are some times when we have to push ourselves beyond the normal limits of what we would do. 

It is also important to note that we have to be able to actually help them. Just having the wish to help is not enough. We need to have the means, and we have to know what to do. If we don’t know what to do, we should have the humility to say, “I really want to help you, but I really don’t know what to do. Let’s find somebody who actually can help you.” 

When some people try to help others, they want to set themselves up as a great hero who can go in like a knight on a white horse and rescue everybody. Some people might have that idea in their heads. They might not be very conscious of it and wouldn’t admit that they are powerless to help somebody. We have to realize that, especially on our level, we are not bodhisattvas. We are not Buddhas, and we can’t solve everybody’s problems. We are not capable of that. All we can do is try our best. It might not work. We might not be able to solve their problem but at least we can try. If we don’t know how to help, we should be honest enough to admit it, and not lead them on. We should say, “Look, I want to help you, but I don’t know how to. Maybe if we go to this lama or somebody else, maybe they can help.” Be honest enough to admit that.  

Words of Advice about Practicing Bodhisattva Behavior

I was told something very helpful at one point. I very much wanted to help in a situation, but it wasn’t working. I asked Rinpoche and he said that when a bodhisattva is trying to help others, from the side of the bodhisattva, all they really have is the strong wish to help the other person. Whether or not their assistance is going to succeed depends on the karma of the other person. If a person has the karma to be helped by us, and the heaviness of the karmic force behind the problem is nearly finished, then our help is going to work. However, if we try our best and it doesn’t help, then the person doesn’t have the karma to be helped. It is too heavy. No matter what we do, it is not going to help, and so we shouldn’t feel inadequate or embark on a guilt trip because we couldn’t do it. We should feel that we always want to try our best, and that we do try to do what we can. Whether it works or not is really up to this other person’s karma. This allows us to get into these situations of helping others without the danger of feeling guilty. The whole guilt trip is a complete waste of time and is a detriment to being able to help people. This is an important thing to keep in mind, really, when we are trying to help others.

Doesn’t that mean that sometimes you just have to leave people with their problem if you see that it is not working?

Well, we can do this many different ways. One way, as I said before, is by giving them suggestions of other things they can try. Basically, everybody has to get themselves out of their own problems. People have to do it from their side. There is a famous quote from the Buddha where he says, “I can’t wash away people’s karma with water, nor can I pull it out like pulling a thorn out of a foot.” All a Buddha can do, really, is show people the teachings and the path. They have to do it themselves. If the karma is there and the Buddha is there, sure he can do certain things, but basically it is our problems, and thus our own responsibility to deal with them. 

So, we should try to help people as much as we can. If the karma is there it will work; if it is not, it won’t work. We could also do stupid things that aren’t going to help and could make it worse. So, we need to be very sincere and not pretentious in what we are doing. In other words, don’t pretend that we are divine beings that can go in with a magic wand and change everything. We need to be honest and open and try our best. Then, if it works, it works and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. What can we do? 

In addition to this, a lot of people might not even want our help. That is another thing that we have to be willing to accept. We can’t force ourselves on others. 

In welfare work you get a lot of people who are allotted to you for help and sometimes you can’t do anything about their problems. I imagine that welfare workers have a lot of guilt about that.

Very often, however, it comes from overestimating our powers and thinking that we really do have the power to just go in with a magic wand and change everything. We have to be realistic about what we are actually able to do, and the other person has to want to be helped. If they don’t want to be helped, nothing that we are going to do is going to help them.

Don’t we need to push ourselves beyond our own limits?

That is sort of like facing the negative mind and saying, “I am not going to come under your control.” Let’s say that we are sitting around and feeling very lazy, and somebody says, “Please get up and help me.” The negative mind says, “Forget about it! I just want to sit here and watch television.” We have to sort of speak to ourselves and say, “C’mon! This is ridiculous,” and sort of force ourselves to get up and do something. Sure, we have to push ourselves. We are so used to being under the control of the negative mind that, instinctively, we feel selfish and don’t want to get involved in nasty situations. But then, the whole point of this training is to become motivated to actually push ourselves beyond old limits and to grow. That is the whole game, isn’t it? We want to grow. 

At the same time, we also need to have some common sense and not push more than we can handle. It requires being very brave, willing to face difficult situations and take them on. Sometimes we don’t know what to do but are in a situation in which we have to do something. We just do our best. We have to be humble and not overestimate our abilities and think that we can solve all the problems in the world and that if we don’t, feel very guilty about it. That is overestimating what is feasible. 

In a sense, a lot of this training is teaching us to be more and more realistic as to what is actually going on in the world, and what is actually going on in our minds. We are facing ourselves, facing all of the nasty things in life as well as the pleasant, and learning to handle and deal with everything. This is not about being off in a romantic fairy land as in Disney meets the Dharma. 

What about seeing everyone as your friend and the dangers of trusting people naively? 

Realizing that everybody has been our friend in the past doesn’t mean that we automatically trust everybody now. It leads to an understanding that even if they act badly toward us now, ultimately that is not the way that they always are, always have been, and always will be in the future. It can change. It is like when we have a child, and the child does something naughty. We don’t like what the child has done and perhaps we get very angry. Let’s say the child is screaming, yelling, and crying and we are very upset by it. In that moment, the relationship and the feelings that we have toward that child are based on anger in a negative way. However, basically this is our child, and we love our child. In many other circumstances, the child is very well-behaved. It is just a matter of common sense. The child isn’t always going to act that way.

If people act badly toward us, look at them as if they were our child having a temper tantrum. Basically, we consider them to be like our child in that there is still a close link with them. In that moment, they are only very upset and having a tantrum.