In our first session, we had a basic introduction to the topic. We saw that when we speak about refuge in Buddhism, we are not speaking about some passive act of turning to some higher power to protect us, but rather, we are taking certain measures to prevent our own sufferings and difficulties. We can describe this as putting a positive and safe direction in our life. That direction is to work on ourselves to overcome and avoid the various shortcomings and difficulties in our life. Working on ourselves is something that gives meaning to our life, and that’s because we are striving to bring more happiness to ourselves and others. Then, we looked at what it means to bring ourselves more happiness, and we saw that it doesn’t actually mean to have more fun, more entertainment or more pleasure, because whatever happiness we gain from that never lasts. It’s never enough. We always want more.
What would really be meaningful would be to have some sort of more basic, fundamental level of happiness. We’ve seen, just based on biology, that this more stable level of happiness comes from the emotional support that we gain from being connected and feeling connected to others – just from being a social animal, biologically.
We examined that when we are closed and only concerned about ourselves, self-preoccupied, this cuts us off from others and we feel isolated and lonely. And this makes us unhappy – it makes everybody unhappy. I think we all know that. Almost everybody I think, at some point or another, sinks into this syndrome of: “Poor me, nobody loves me,” which is very unpleasant, isn’t it? Whereas when we are open to others, thinking about others, taking care of and helping them through small acts of kindness, it makes us feel much more stable, supported and happy – not dramatically happy, but a very calm, supportive type of happiness. In English, we differentiate between being warm-hearted and cold-hearted. Warm-hearted is a loving, open person – basically, a happy person. Cold-hearted is very cool, closed – nobody wants to be with such a person.
Contemplating Mind Training
As it says in one of the great Buddhist texts, The Seven-Point Mind Training, put all the blame for our problems on one thing – and that’s our self-cherishing attitude, self-preoccupation, only being concerned about ourselves. Elsewhere in the same text, it says, if all our Buddhist practice comes down to this one point, that everything we do is intended to overcome this self-cherishing, then that is a sign that our practice is successful. So, this presentation of refuge that we’ll go through this weekend is taking The Seven-Point Mind Training approach, and seeing how it can apply to the most basic, fundamental teaching of Buddhism, which is refuge. I think it makes it much more significant. When I say significant, what I mean is that it makes it more meaningful, something that we can actually relate to. In fact, we see how refuge makes up the whole foundation of the Buddhist path.
The first step that we need to take in terms of refuge – not just speaking theoretically but applying each day – is to start the day with putting a direction, reaffirming a direction in our lives. The first step for doing that is to reaffirm the importance of refuge, why we want to do this. In the morning we start with the intention, then carry out our Dharma practice, and then the dedication. So, this reaffirmation of a direction is before the intention – it’s what leads us to the intention. So, what we look at is – if today is a meaningless day, and it’s going nowhere, or it’s very unsatisfying – that is not what we want. That is not very fulfilling.
What would be far better would be to put some sort of meaning in our life – to do something meaningful today. As I mentioned yesterday, when we feel that we can at least make a small difference in the world, even to just one person by making them a little bit happier, it gives us a sense of self-worth. That sense of self-worth is so crucial in terms of our basic level of happiness in life. This is the direction that we want to put in our life – so then we set the intention of going in that direction, of trying to do that. As we said in the first session, this is the most basic level of refuge. Then, if we want, we can fill in more and more detail of what it means to go in that direction, but first, we go in this general direction.
If we just say, “The direction is Buddha, Dharma and Sangha,” and we can just list the whole set of qualities of them, this doesn’t have any meaning in our ordinary lives. We need to understand what is behind refuge, what is underlying the most basic direction. And as I said previously, if we look at just the physical body of a Buddha, with all the characteristics, it’s an infographic where each feature indicates what the cause was, and the cause was cherishing others, in thirty-two different variants. That’s what the infographic is signifying. For instance, the qualities of the Buddha’s speech – everybody can understand what the Buddha says, in any language. Obviously, if we care about others, we care about communicating with them − communicating with them in a way they can understand. That’s the whole purpose, the whole idea, behind these qualities of speech. It’s something we can aim for.
Furthermore, the qualities of mind, to be able to understand everybody – understand their problems, their needs and how to actually help them – that’s something we can actually aim for and try to do. Even on the most basic level, caring about others is the first step, and then listening to what they have to say, being sensitive to what’s going on with them, not just thinking, “Oh, I wish they would just shut up and leave me alone so I can go back to looking at my Facebook page,” or whatever.
It’s like when we’re in a crowded metro, do we just want to shut ourselves off and lose ourselves in our cell phones or headphones? Or does taking the metro give us an opportunity to feel connected with all these people? When do we ever think like that? How many people really enjoy riding a crowded metro? Or being caught in one of these classic traffic jams here, in Moscow? How much are we thinking of all the other people caught in the traffic jam? We usually have very negative thoughts toward them.
This is what mind-training practice is all about – to transform these challenging, difficult situations into positive situations in which we can actually develop concern for others. It’s developing the understanding that nobody wants to be in this traffic jam, and that we are all in this together. Basically, it’s to recognize that we’re not the only ones stuck. The traffic jam or the crowded metro are wonderful opportunities to work on compassion – compassion for everyone else stuck in the same situation. In doing tonglen practices, taking on all the frustration of everybody else, we will, through our patience, understanding and openness, wish that everybody could be working on compassion like this, and we imagine giving that practice to them. In doing this, we transform the whole situation; this is what putting a safe direction in our life is all about – not just, “Oh Buddha, get me out of this traffic jam!” So, refuge puts a meaning in our life.
When, for example, we start out in the morning with a thought of: “Oh my god, I have to be in traffic for two hours to get to work – what a torture,” or the thought, “Poor me!” – we make ourselves miserable. If we start out the day with thinking, “Wow, now I have two hours to practice compassion while I’m going to work, and working on myself to see if I can really deal with this and not get upset?” – it’s a completely different flavor to our life, isn’t it? So that’s what is meant by setting intention, taking refuge in the morning when we wake up. It’s not just mechanically doing some prostrations and reciting some verse.
Developing this connectedness with others, based on cherishing and helping them, underlies everything I’ve been saying now. Then, the thing we want to really identify is what do we need to overcome in order to be able to do this, to have this connectedness, and feel this connectedness with others? What is preventing me from doing this? This is the next step.
Of course, Buddhism has a whole list of things that are preventing this, but before we go through that list, I think it’s helpful to just look within ourselves, to see if we can possibly identify what is preventing us from feeling this connectedness, this openness to others. Do we place the blame on just thinking, “Well, nobody loves me, it’s all their fault!” Or really, what is the source of this feeling? It’s thinking, “I’m so wonderful, but nobody appreciates it,” isn’t it?
It is not very nice to examine the “nobody understands me” type of attitude. “I’m so lonely, nobody understands me.” What is that type of thinking? Does it make us happy, or unhappy?
The example I was thinking of, which made me chuckle, is when we are with somebody, when we meet a friend – do we just want to tell them all about our own problems, or are we concerned about what’s going on with them? I have friends like that, who never ask me how I’m doing, they just immediately go into a whole long story of all the difficulties they’ve had during the week. So, we can be on both sides of that – either the side that just wants to talk about ourselves and really doesn’t care about the other person, or we can be on the other side, recognizing that this person is telling me all their problems, and the main thought in our head is: “Shut up already, because I want to tell you about me!” So, self-cherishing is behind both sides here. It becomes a very unpleasant interaction.
In any case, what is helpful is going through the various factors that prevent us from being connected with others, from being happy, basically, as presented in the graded stages of lam-rim. Lam-rim is wonderful that way. Let’s look at these causes one by one.
The reason for not being connected with others is because we lack the first emotional state − the first component of the emotional state − that we need to develop in order to really put this direction in our life is called fear! Fear means to be horrified at what we are doing by being self-cherishing, which is just creating more unhappiness for ourselves. We’re horrified by it. It’s not that we’re afraid of it, but we think what we’re doing is horrible. We really want to stop it.
Obstruction One: Destructive Behaviors
The first obstruction is acting destructively. What does this include? Being dishonest with others. Cheating them. Bullying them. Harming them in one way or another. Clinging to them – “Don’t ever leave me! Why didn’t you call? Why don’t you love me?” Or ignoring them and being totally insensitive to them. These are all destructive types of behavior, and they certainly don’t win friendships, do they? People don’t like us if we are dishonest, cheat or bully them, and so on.
Further, if we use them just for our own pleasure, exploiting them – “What can I get from them?” These are things to observe in our own personal relationships. We examine ourselves to see, in this relationship or that relationship – “How am I acting, how am I behaving? Am I using this person just for my own benefit, my own pleasure?” Or wondering, “What work can I get out of them or what work can I get them to do for me?” Does this really prevent us from feeling connected with them in a positive way? Are we really helping them? Does it make us happy, to have this type of relationship with others?
This destructive behavior is something to examine. If we find it is the way we are acting with many people, that it is just causing more isolation, more bad relationships, we feel horrified about our behavior. “I don’t want to do that! This is self-destructive. Not only is it unpleasant for the other person, but it’s also self-destructive for me!” Especially if we are in a position where we have people working for us – are we just using them? Do we just see them as the function they perform, or do we see them as human beings? So, let’s examine ourselves to see if we are acting destructively. We don’t have to take the examination to the extreme that we see in the lam-rim, checking if we are going around murdering people. That’s a general category. Underneath that principle is examining all the variants of hurting somebody in some way or another, not just killing mosquitos.
Obstruction Two: Disturbing Emotions
The next thing we examine are our disturbing emotions, such as getting angry with other people, being filled with longing desire for them, clinging to them or being naive about their feelings. Are we naive about the effect of our behavior on them? Do we feel anxiety that they won’t like us, or perhaps that they’ll reject us? We look to see – do we have these disturbing emotions in our relations with others, and do they prevent us from really helping them and being connected with them in a positive way? Are we always getting angry with them, losing our patience? Or only thinking of what they can do for us – attached. Having this disturbing emotional state of mind toward various people in our life – does it make us happy? Or is it really spoiling our relationships with other people? Let’s examine ourselves, and if it is true, we feel horrified by the fact that this is continuing. It’s something we’d like to work on and overcome, isn’t it? “It’s isolating me from others. It’s destroying my friendships.”
Obstruction Three: Compulsively Acting in a Constructive Way
The next one is compulsively acting in a constructive way. This includes being overly concerned about others, always trying to help them, even when they don’t want or need our help, such as giving our unwanted advice and opinion. Constantly correcting them, even when it’s inappropriate. Just because they don’t do things the way that we like to do them or usually do them. We correct them all the time, thinking that it will be helpful, but actually they just resent it. Basically, we just worry about them all the time. These are compulsive, constructive ways of acting with others.
Again, we examine ourselves and see, “Does this prevent us from really connecting with them in a positive way, and really helping them? Does it make us happy?” The problem isn’t caring about them, the problem is being too pushy about it. If we have teenaged children, I think this syndrome becomes very clear. Also, if we are running an office, or working with other people in an office, always trying to push them to do things our way, rather than letting them do it their way, which might be just as efficient and just as good – this often happens in an office.
Again, if we discover that we are acting like this with others − maybe not with everybody, but with a significant number of people − this is something that cuts us off from others. It prevents a good connection with others. So, we think, “I am horrified by that. I really want to overcome this behavior. I’d like to go in the direction that gets me out of acting in this way.”
Obstruction Four: Disturbing Attitudes
Lam-rim is wonderful; it gives stage by stage, step by step, all these things that are really so self-destructive. The next one to explore is our disturbing attitudes, centered around our preoccupation with me, me, me. Some of the stages are underlying our destructive behavior, and some are underlying our compulsive constructive behavior. In the case of destructive syndromes, being selfish, always thinking, “I should get my way, I should get what I want, I’m the most important, I should get to the front of the line, I’m always right.” Or it could be the opposite – “I’m no good, what if they don’t like me?” All of this is focused on me, me, me, isn’t it? And, in the case of a compulsive constructive syndrome, it would be things like, “I have to be perfect,” the perfectionist mentality. And, “What’s best for me, and what I like, is best for you.” All of these are examples of this disturbing attitude of self-preoccupation – thinking, “Most important is me, what I like, what I think, what I want.”
It’s amazing, when you actually start to examine the way we think, how often these types of thoughts come up, with that voice in our head saying, “I don’t like what you did, I want it to be like this,” etc. “Why aren’t you like what I want?” There was even a study done – His Holiness the Dalai Lama often quotes this – people who have the word “I” or “me” most frequently in their thoughts or in their speech have the most heart problems. High blood pressure, these sort of things. So again, we examine ourselves – “Does this disturbing attitude prevent me from being connected with others in a positive way, and from really helping them? Does it make me happy?” And again, we feel horrified at this. The more we’re focused on thinking about ourselves, actually, the more miserable we are.
Obstruction Five: Uncontrollable Recurrence
These syndromes keep on repeating, in one form or another, with everyone we meet, and in every relationship we get into. These syndromes of disturbing emotions, destructive behavior, compulsive constructive behavior, and always being preoccupied with me, me, me – they uncontrollably recur. That’s what samsara is all about. We have no control over it. Every relationship we get into and every situation, they just keep coming up and up again. It really is horrifying. Each new relationship that I get into, each new connection with somebody, basically, these syndromes mess it up. We don’t want to mess it up, but we mess it up anyway. We don’t have any control. Is that something we want to continue, or is that something that’s horrific, and that we really want to overcome?
Again, we examine ourselves. “The fact that these emotions and behaviors uncontrollably recur, does this give me a better connection with others, or a worse connection with others? Does it make me happy? Is this a pattern I’d like to break?”
Obstruction Six: Not Knowing How to Help Others
The final obstruction is how we really don’t know how to help others. We can’t really understand all the causes and conditions that affect the way others are now, and we have no idea what the long-term effect will be of anything we say or do in our attempt to try to help them. That’s most clear when we are trying to raise children – we don’t really know what’s going to be best for them. We maybe have our own ideas, but we really don’t know. Whatever we try, we don’t know what the effect is going to be – that’s quite terrible, isn’t it? Further, we don’t know how to help our friends or our elderly parents. What would be best for them? Really, we have no idea, do we? However, we wish we knew. So, think about all of this.
To sum up, these are the obstacles, things that prevent us from being really connected in a positive, meaningful and constructive way with others. We act destructively toward them. We have disturbing emotions, such as getting angry with them. We compulsively try to help them, even when they don’t want our help, and so we are pushy with them. We try to be perfect. We are preoccupied with me – “What I like must be what you would like; what is good for me must be good for you.” Or, “We should always do things my way.” All these syndromes keep on repeating over and over again; we don’t seem to have any control over them. And even when we try to help others, we don’t really know what would be best. Thinking about all of this, as is nicely delineated in the lam-rim for us, is something we are horrified at – something we really want to avoid. When we talk about refuge, we aren’t just talking about doing this examination on the initial lam-rim level. It’s relevant throughout the path.
Because refuge underlies the entire path, don’t just limit it to thinking, “Well, I’m afraid of going to hell, so, Buddha save me.” That’s a very limited way of looking at this whole topic of refuge. We look at all these patterns in ourselves, and that is what we talk about when we say to develop “fear” – we’re horrified at that. We really don’t want these disturbing emotions and behaviors to continue. Instead, we want to put some direction in our life that will help us to prevent all of that from continuing. In this sense, it’s refuge. It saves us from suffering.
Remember: for refuge, like every other topic in Dharma, to have any meaning to us, it has to be relevant to our own personal lives. If it’s not relevant, if we can’t see the relevancy of it, then it’s just interesting information at best, or boring information at worst.
A small dedication: what understanding has come from this discussion, may it go deeper and deeper, and act as a cause for really taking refuge, and for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.