A blog on practical Buddhism. So many who strive to follow the Buddhist path experience barriers that frustrate their progress. My goal is to make the path more accessible by breaking out of the dogma of much Buddhist teaching to remove the barriers, combining a fresh take on aspects of the Buddha dharma with a practical perspective based on years of experience. By Hanh Niem, Ronald Hirsch.
There are times when really bad things happen … things that are beyond the pale of everyday disappointments or nastiness … being subjected to major physical or psychic abuse, rape, or any form of extreme human denigration. These circumstances are thankfully rare for most of us, unless one is caught in an abusive relationship or in the crossfire of war. But we know these things do happen, and on a daily basis.
How does one keep one’s sanity in such situations? How does one sustain a feeling of humanity and self-worth?
One answer, of course, is to get out of the situation if one can. But whether one can or not, as a Buddhist, the answer lies in three parts. The first is that a Buddhist would never ask, as Job did, “Why me, God?” There is no God in Buddhism, no all-knowing, all-powerful being who acts in “mysterious ways” and to whom we pray for deliverance. We understand that things are the way they are because it’s just the way it is. We accept our life and the world as it is at this moment, and so nothing offends; the mind rests undisturbed.
As I’ve noted previously in my writings, I once asked a monk why, if we are all born perfect with the true Buddha nature inside us, we all suffer. His answer, “That’s just the way it is. It’s like the laws of thermodynamics.” The fact that we may have been purposefully singled out as an individual or as a group does not change that basic fact. In this view of the world, we are not victims.
The second answer is compassion. Regardless how horrible the acts are that are done to us, we have compassion for the perpetrator because of the overwhelming samsara that has caused him (or her) to do these monstrous things. We have compassion because of our knowledge that the perpetrator is spiritually in agony and, as a product of its learned experience, had in fact only a small window of free will in which to act. If we can, we forgive.
The third and most central is our belief in our own true Buddha nature. If we have absolute faith in our true Buddha nature and our dignity, then nothing that is done to us, nothing that we experience, can rob us of that dignity. It is the one thing in life that is not impermanent. We will be ok, safe, regardless what life throws our way. (See my post, “Safety Defined.”)
There is a children’s mantra, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Children say this in a defensive mode. But it really doesn’t help them … trust me, I know … because they do not have the awareness and sense of their true Buddha nature to protect themselves from the impact of the barbs that are thrown against them.
But for a Buddhist, this mantra, revised slightly to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words and actions will not rob me of my dignity and true Buddha nature,” has great significance. If we are free of ego, at one with all things, and experience all things directly without the intervention of thought, then no action of another can cause us psychic or spiritual harm. We radiate an energy, an aura, that creates a forcefield around us that negativity cannot break through.
What is critical here, as throughout the practice of incorporating the Buddha dharma into ones daily life, is having absolute faith in our true Buddha nature. If we lack that faith, then we cannot really take refuge in the Three Jewels because we do not believe this central element of the Buddha’s teaching. If we lack that faith we have nothing to surrender our ego to, nothing to counterbalance its force. If we lack that faith, the weight of our learned experience and our cultural environment will make it impossible for us to make progress on the path.
Please do not think I am being glib by dealing with this harrowing type of experience in such a straightforward, seemingly simplistic manner. I do not minimize the assault such experiences make on ones feelings of self-esteem and humanity … I experienced an instance of rather extreme human denigration as a child. I am just relating the rock that one’s belief in one’s true Buddha nature can be and the truly literal meaning of “taking refuge” in the Three Jewels against both the lesser and greater assaults that confront us.
As a Buddhist, the five Precepts … not killing, helping others, refraining from sexual misconduct, speaking and listening with loving kindness, and not consuming things which are harmful … are an essential element of ones meditation practice and form a core guidance on how to live a Right life. I just realized, though, that I have never written a post regarding the Five Precepts; I have discussed them in my books, but not a post. I now rectify that negligence.
The Five Precepts (adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s version) are:
1. Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.
2. Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating compassion and loving kindness towards myself and all others and learning ways to work for wellbeing of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need.
3. Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual respect. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others.
4. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating deep listening and loving speech in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope.
5. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace, well being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society.
The first thing to note is that the Precepts, as presented by Thich Nhat Hanh, begin with a statement of awareness. We are not told to follow these moral guidelines because they are a commandment; rather, we are asked to be aware of the suffering of others, and out of that awareness act so as to help end or at least lessen such suffering.
It would be rather easy to blithely recite the precepts. They make one feel good about how one is approaching life. I did that for the first few years of my Buddhist practice. But if one “takes” the precepts, one is committing oneself to following the guidance of the precepts. And that, as the following will show, is not a simple matter.
1. The first precept goes beyond the Biblical “thou shall not kill” as it refers to the destruction of life of all elements of our environment. The area where this precept has the most difficult application for most of us is in the question whether or not to eat meat and fish, whether to support the killing of animals for the benefit of man’s appetite. Most of us grew up as meat-eaters. That is the prevailing culture … our parents, our friends, virtually everyone around us were meat-eaters. The taste of a good steak or roast or stew, the juiciness of a good hamburger, and for me, all the wonderful German cold-cuts … the idea of doing without these was one of the hardest things to accept when I thought about living life as a Buddhist.
Both the temples I attended … a Korean Zen and a Vietnamese Zen were strictly vegetarian. So I thought that being a Buddhist meant being vegetarian … until I had my first meal with some Tibetan monks and saw them eat meat!
This is truly the “to be or not to be” question in Buddhism. And there is no clear answer, as the various branches of Buddhism … Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana … have different teachings on the subject. The subject is so esoteric and confused that I will not even attempt to make sense of the conflicting viewpoints.
Since the teachings of the Buddha on this subject are in dispute, with one school saying that the eating of meat is not consistent with the practice, at least certainly for monks, while another says that it is, at least for lay people and under many conditions even for monks, I would say that one has choices here.
If your practice follows a particular lineage that has a definite teaching on this subject, then it would seem that it would be best to follow those teachings. However, if you, like me, do not follow any particular lineage, then I suggest that making a decision is a question of ethics.
Killing an animal or any sentient being is in most circumstances the polar opposite of protecting life, of acting with loving kindness towards a person or being. Clearly one cannot say as a reason, “But I really enjoy eating meat and fish.” Ones pleasure does not support taking the life of another sentient being. That is not a mitigating context.
A critical question for me was, is eating meat and fish necessary or helpful to maintaining health? As a person living with a compromised immune system, this question was very important to me. The unequivocal answer after reviewing various sources is, no. Eating a vegetarian diet that includes eggs and dairy products not only provides all the nutrients needed for good health (with perhaps an occasional fish dish thrown in) but studies uniformly show that vegetarians are more healthy and live longer than non-vegetarians. There is no health-related reason to eat meat and fish. Indeed, quite the opposite is true.
However, if weight-training is a part of one’s life, then eating meat protein is important in that it helps build muscle in a way that other sources of protein don’t. Since weight-training is an important part of my life and is documented as being important as one ages, I have gone back to eating meat. However, I do try at least to only eat meat that has been humanely raised, i,e, free range chickens, grass fed beef.
The other area in which the first Precept has very practical consequences is our action in time of war. The simplest form of the first Precept is, “do not kill,” and indeed Thich Nhat Hanh’s version continues with a vow not just not to kill but to not in any way support killing by others. I did not include this language in my version above because that sounds like pacifism, and while the Buddha taught non-violence, it was not absolute and he did not teach pacifism.
I once asked a monk if one could kill a mosquito and not break the first Precept. His response was that the Precepts are not mindless of context. If one is acting in self-defense … such as killing a mosquito … then one hasn’t broken the first Precept. The same concept would apply in war, if your country is attacked; if the war is undertaken to protect lives rather than out of hatred for others, then war and participating in war is not inconsistent with being a lay Buddhist.
2. The second Precept’s commitment to compassion and loving kindness is a challenge for us, both regarding towards ourselves and others. I have spoken about this in other posts.
But generosity sounds like a pretty straightforward matter. I mean, we all know what it means, right? And we all practice it, at least to some extent. But do we really understand what generosity means in the Buddhist context and do we practice it?
There are two aspects of generosity in Buddhism that are equally important … the one is the act and the other is the origination of the act. It is important that an act of generosity originates from a state of equanimity and a spirit of unconditional loving kindness and compassion for all.
It’s probably safe to say that most of the generosity that is practiced in this world originates from a different place, one driven by ego or pity. The most common acts of generosity are the giving of money, whether to charity or directly to someone in need, and the giving of time by volunteering with an organization that helps people in need.
But the giving of money and the giving of time are the easiest forms of generosity because they require the least of us spiritually. This is not to downplay their value … you can definitely change peoples lives for the better through both these acts of generosity … but these acts can be practiced without them originating in loving kindness and compassion for all people. Indeed, many such acts of generosity arise from a desire to feel good about oneself or to impress others with one’s goodness. This is pure ego.
The other type of generosity involves literally giving of oneself, and that is not possible without it originating in a skillful way … well perhaps it is, but it is less likely. This type of giving stems from your very presence. When you give someone understanding, a sense of peace, a feeling of stability, or the freedom from fear through your actions and words, by listening deeply and speaking with loving kindness, or bring joy into their lives, then you have truly given of yourself. And while the practice of giving money or time is by necessity limited in scope for most of us, giving of ourselves can be done numerous times on a daily basis towards family, friends, and strangers.
Now as I intimated, it is certainly possible for the ego to co-opt even these types of actions. Even if they originated in a self-less, loving way, the ego can transform the motivation into one more to its benefit and cause attachment to arise. So be aware.
Think about the acts of generosity that you have performed in the recent past. Meditate on what the origination of those acts were. If they stemmed from something other than unconditional loving kindness and compassion, it they did not stem from a state of equanimity, then at least that awareness will be helpful to you as you move forward on the path. Self-knowledge leads to growth; self-deception results in stagnation.
3. The third Precept, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s version, states, “I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment.” In today’s culture, this Precept is for most people probably the most challenging of all because it is without question contrary to our culture’s current norms.
Obviously, “friends with benefits,” casual sex, even sex in a short-term dating context is considered sexual misconduct under this standard. I should note that other interpretations of the third Precept are less restrictive than Thich Nhat Hanh’s. I asked a Theravadan monk what constitutes sexual misconduct and he said that as long as it was between consenting adults, sex was ok and there was no misconduct.
In thinking about this Precept, it is most important to remember that the primary Buddhist principles are to treat others with respect and loving kindness and to do others no harm, psychologically or physically. If you keep that in mind, you will see that the Theravadan monk’s answer was not really apposite … one can have two consenting adults and still have a total lack of respect and loving kindness, and the likelihood of psychological harm from casual sex is not to be minimized. Indeed, even in a marriage, it is quite possible for the foundations of “skillful” (and I obviously don’t mean technique here) sex to be missing and that therefore even in that setting sex could be misconduct using the standard I have noted.
Thus my version of this precept says, “I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual respect.”
4. The fourth Precept. While this precept seems rather innocuous and people rarely react to it quizzically, as they do with the third Precept, it is a very difficult precept for most of us to practice.
First, let’s look at deep listening. What does “deep listening” mean? It means to really hear what the other person is saying. For one to practice deep listening, one must therefore listen free of ones own ego. Otherwise you are hearing what is said through the filter of your own perception and biases and thus not really hearing what the other person is saying, where that person is coming from. Thus when someone says, “I hear you,” they rarely do.
So if you are not yet free of your ego, how then do you practice this Precept, how do you listen deeply? It’s almost impossible. The best you can do is be aware how your ego is filtering and reacting to what is being said and try to put that aside.
From personal experience I can say that it is possible to catch that you are reacting to something through your ego and to very consciously put that to one side and reabsorb what is being said. For example, often when someone is voicing their feelings about something, especially something personal, all they want is to be listened to; they are not looking to get into a discussion. Yet our ego wants to have a chance to comment, to have input, to feel good about helping the person … but that is not helping the person. At some point, and this was not at all easy, I learned to sit quietly and just listen.
What does it mean to “speak with loving kindness.” It means more than just being kind to the other person. It means speaking out of unconditional love and compassion for the person and to speak selflessly. As with listening deeply, this requires one to be free of ego, and if not, to catch yourself as your ego starts to form thoughts and words in your mind. And it requires your heart to be open to the person regardless of what they have done or what they may do, including whether they listen to what you have to say and act as you suggest. Indeed, speaking with loving kindness may mean not speaking at all.
5. The fifth Precept is again one that is very challenging because our culture promotes unmindful consumption and our economy is premised on it. You may think that you are consuming mindfully … whether it’s things you purchase, or what you read, or what you watch on television or in the movies … but consuming mindfully means more than making a conscious decision. It means being sufficiently aware so that you are mindful of why you are thinking about consuming something and you are aware of the impact of such consuming on you and thus have the ability to decide not to consume the thing in those instances where you understand that consuming it will not “preserve peace, wellbeing, and joy.”
This precept, although Thich Nhat Hanh frames it with reference to the broader community, is the precept that most concerns refraining from doing harm to oneself, of not doing things that add to or feed our samsara. And again, since this is not “harm” as our culture defines the word, but spiritual “harm,” practicing this precept requires not just discipline, but a 24/7 practice of mindfulness.
By purposefully practicing the Five Precepts, your mindfulness will increase, which is essential if you are eventually to surrender your ego to your true Buddha nature. If you are serious about following the Buddhist path but have not yet formally “taken” the Precepts, I would encourage you to do so if you attend a temple or there is one in reasonable proximity to where you live. It is a step on the path, a commitment of oneself, which is essential to gaining greater understanding.
While I have written about wisdom often in other connections, I’ve never devoted a post to the topic. Given the importance of understanding what wisdom is, that’s critical.
To define wisdom, the best place to look is the Heart Sutra, the full name of which is “Heart of Perfected Wisdom.” Wisdom is coming to perceive that all five skandhas are empty of intrinsic existence, that they are all a product of the mind. Wisdom is thus perceiving the emptiness of the ego-mind, as it is composed of the five skandhas. (See the page on this website about the Heart Sutra.)
As the sutra says, when you abide in this wisdom, your mind has no fears or obstructions. Therefore you have no fears or obstructions, are free of confused illusion, and thus reach nirvana.
Wisdom is thus divorcing ourselves from the impact our life experiences have had on us, which is the ego-mind. It means divorcing ourselves from the paradigms that have governed how we view ourselves and the world around us.
This is to put it mildly a challenge for us. To help us, the complement to this basic wisdom is the wisdom that our ego-mind is not our true self. As the Buddha taught, if it causes you suffering, then it is not you, it is not yours, it is not yourself. Instead, your true self is your heart, your unborn Buddha mind.
When you sit with yourself and go deep within, you come to realize that your ego mind is not your true self. And that all emotions, judgments, attachments, and cravings flow from your ego mind and thus are also not your true self. Instead, they weaken you and cause you suffering. And so you let them go and instead go deep inside yourself to your heart for guidance.
One thing that often perplexes people as they start walking the Buddhist path, is that if we are all born essentially perfect, if we all have the Buddha nature inside us, then why do we suffer? Why is this wisdom buried so deep within ourselves?
The answer, as so many wise men have written, is that one must go through the darkness in order to find the light. One must choose light over darkness, that is what gives one strength and character, courage. If we from the moment of our birth were able to exercise the wisdom we were born with and not succumb to the challenges we face in life and the “protections” developed by the ego-mind, we would be a race of peaceful but flat, boring people because we would not have tasted the bitterness of life. And we would have no basis for compassion.
And so although we are born with the Buddha nature inside us, and it remains there throughout our lives, we go through this painful process of being enveloped in darkness so that we can find the light and choose to follow it. Unfortunately, most of humanity never finds the light and so remains enveloped in darkness.
It is thus the task of the boddhisatva, indeed of all Buddhists, to bring this wisdom to all. This is why I wrote my latest book, How to Find Inner Peace: A Handbook for People of All Faiths and Non-Believers.
One of the most important steps in ending our suffering is to reconnect with the faith and trust that is in our heart, our true Buddha self. This is not faith and trust in others, or in the world at large. It is faith and trust in ourselves.
Whether it’s faith that we will be ok, safe, regardless what life throws our way because we have returned home to out true Buddha nature and are at peace and happy. Whether it’s faith that we are a good person. Or weather it’s faith that our efforts will bear fruit. Having faith is important to not succumbing to the endless sniping, the doubts, emotions, confusion, and negativity, of the ego-mind.
When I think of the importance of faith, I’m reminded of the title of the Bach cantata, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Indeed, if you have faith, and it comes from deep in your heart, it is a mighty fortress. The other aspect of our fortress is taking refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, because it is only through the support of their wisdom that we learn to find our true selves, our Buddha nature, and free ourselves from the control of our ego-mind.
Regarding faith that our efforts will bear fruit, perhaps in the way we envision, perhaps in some other way, it is important to note that this is free of attachment. We approach our efforts with the attitude that if it happens as we envision, great; if it doesn’t, that’s ok too. But we still have faith in our efforts. The two attitudes are not inconsistent.
Nor is there anything un-Buddhist about thinking about the future. It is impossible to go through life without planning for the future. As I’ve frequently written, being present does not mean not planning for the future. It does, however, impact how we plan for or think about the future. (See my posts, “As a Buddhist, How Do You Think About the Future,” and “As a Buddhist - Revisited.”)
But faith to the ego-mind is similar to what light is to a vampire. Because faith can deal a mortal blow to the ego-mind by denying it access to you; by creating a forcefield around you that repels any negative energy. The ego-mind therefore seeks to destroy your faith either by belittling it, perverting the concept of faith, or rolling over it by sheer force of power.
One way it destroys is by saying that faith is “just words.” If you’re miserable now, if your lacking what you want … that is what’s real. Faith in the future is just words. And that sentence can have a devastating impact on faith if the faith does not run deep.
A related way is using the Buddhist emphasis on being present to destroy faith. The ego-mind will remind you that you have to live in the present, everything else is thought. So forget about faith. But this is a perversion of the concept of faith; it is not thought, it is not a function of the mind, it comes from the heart. So even if one is present, one can have faith.
If all else fails, the ego-mind will try to overwhelm you with the power of emotions and roll over your faith like a steamroller. The power of the ego-mind and its willingness to use that power regardless of its impact on your wellbeing is not to be underestimated.
As with all challenges in walking the path, one must be ever vigilant of the darkness and negativity of the ego-mind. It is not your companion in your search to end suffering; it is your adversary. Have compassion for it, but know that it is your adversary.
You may well ask the eternal question, why does the ego-mind do this to us? The ego-mind has been formed by our life-experiences and what it sees as the way to protect us from these experiences in the future. It does not want to hurt us, but if we are destroyed in the process of trying to protect us, that doesn’t seem to impact the ego-mind.
Also, remember that your wounded inner child is the avatar of your ego-mind. He is very much alive in you right now. Your wounded inner child sees the world as a menacing, hostile, place. Until your wounded inner child is healed, he will continue to scream and yell, throw temper tantrums, when he is confronted by what he sees as the hostile world. He takes everything very personally. His trauma is so deep that it distorts everything.
Knowing this, being aware, is of critical importance as you try to move from a past controlled by your ego-mind to a future in which you put your will and your life in the care of your true Buddha nature.
It is a central teaching of Buddhism that an important part of our experiencing joy is offering joy to others. For example, part of the grace that was said before our meals at a temple I used to attend was, "With the first taste, I promise to offer joy. With the second taste, I promise to help relieve the suffering of others. With the third taste, I promise to see others' joy a my own." It is part of the tradition of selflessness.
In my view, offering others joy is of even deeper importance. As I've written, our only purpose in life is to offer ourselves and others joy. This is the essence of being human, of humanity. (See my posts, “What is Your Task in Life?” and “Offering Myself Joy!” And for the one exception, see my post “Evil - How Should a Buddhist Respond?”)
Before going any further, it would be good to remind the reader what the definition of joy is in the Buddhist context. It is not fun; it is not laughter; it is not excitement. Joy is a spiritual feeling that resides in the heart. It is a feeling of purity and goodness. It is a feeling of lightness. It is a feeling that can only be experienced free of the influence of the ego-mind. (See my post, “Joy - At Last Real Understanding.”)
You offer yourself joy by taking pleasure in each passing moment, being free of any desire for the present moment to be different in any way from what it is right now; being in touch with the positive energy, the joy, in your heart at all times; and having unconditional compassion for yourself.
But how does one offer others joy? Most people would say that you do this by doing good things for people, by giving them things that they want. This may indeed make someone happy, but it does not offer them joy. Remember, joy is a spiritual feeling about oneself and one's relationship with the world around you.
To understand the answer to this question, we first need to remind ourselves why most people, including ourselves, suffer. People suffer because they were raised ... whether by their family, their social circle, or the prevailing culture ... in a manner that created deep feelings of insecurity which led to feelings of fear and anxiety, among others. We feel we are not listened to, we are not respected. We are thus consumed by our feelings of insecurity and the related emotions of anxiety, fear, anger, resentment. The list goes on and on.
If we want to offer others joy, then at a minimum we should not add to their suffering and hopefully help them feel good about themselves. One way of doing both is by showing others that you have faith in them doing whatever it is they set out to do. By always being a positive support next to them. By honoring them. And by seeing them as yourself.
How does this translate into real life actions? How do we implement this? Most people do not have a lot of faith in themselves. Even if they are full of bravado, deep down they do not have faith in themselves; their bravado is a facade. So the first step in offering joy is to show them you have faith in them by not interjecting yourself into their process. Because when you do that, the impact is that they feel you don't trust their ability to sort things out themselves; if necessary to learn from their own mistakes. And that undermines their own self-confidence.
There are several ways of implementing this intent. This first is to not challenge or question them. The second is to not finish their thoughts or restate their thoughts. The third is to not interrupt them, correct them, or think for them. Fourth, do not doing anything for them unless asked. Finally, do not put in your two cents unless asked directly.
This is very, and I mean very, hard for most of us to do. Why? Because we are subject to our own egos. We think that we have the answers or at a minimum that we can help the process the other person is going through. It can be something as simple as how to drive from point A to point B, or something very complex.
If you think about it, you will find that in your interactions with others, you regularly do all the things that I just listed one shouldn't do if you want to show someone you have faith in them doing what they set out to do. If you intend to offer them joy. You may think this all sounds silly; that people need to grow up, that's life. But think about how you feel when someone does these things to you.
This does not mean that you can never have input, make a suggestion to someone. But the timing of your comment and how it is made is of critical importance. Basically, you never interject in the middle of the process, while it is happening. You wait for a quiet time, like at dinner, when you can bring something up, comment, and what you say has a chance of being received with equanimity.
The next step is being a positive support for people. We do this by always being in touch with the positive energy in our heart and the neutrality of our senses, free of the intervention of our ego-mind. Then we are free of worries and concerns; then we are full of faith in the other person. And so when we speak, we will always do so in a way which offers positive support.
The next way to make people feel good about themselves is to honor them. This means paying attention, listening, to what the other person is saying. Stopping whatever you're doing when he or she speaks and turn your body towards him. Every person deserves your undivided attention when they speak. Again, if the other person feels that you are not paying attention to them, then that activates feelings of lack of respect from their learned experience.
Finally, you help insure that you perform the steps mentioned by seeing the other person as yourself. By seeing their needs and your needs. Their need, for example, for boundaries as your need for boundaries. Their need for respect as your need for respect. Their need for self-confidence as your need for self-confidence. If you step into someone's shoes and understand where they are coming from, then you are more likely to be on guard for things you would otherwise automatically do that could harm the other person. And stop yourself from doing them.
Again, this is all a real challenge for most of us. It means adopting a very different perspective in our relations with others, whether it's our loved ones, colleagues, or strangers. But if you truly want to experience joy, if you want to connect with your heart, your true Buddha self; if you want to offer others joy rather than just stroke your ego-mind … then your intent should be to implement these steps.
In talking to several people about the process of the heart’s embrace (see my post of that title), I found that the idea of embracing very negative, hurtful, experiences or what their inner child and therefore they had become because of those experiences was not something they were open to. Indeed they were resentful of the experiences and hated what they had become.
This is precisely why, as taught by many including Pema Chodron, they need to embrace these experiences and aspects of their being in order to end their suffering. But the word “embrace” is something that the ego-mind rebels against. And although these were all people deeply on the spiritual path, they could not get past the fury of their ego-mind.
As I sat with this quandary, I realized that as with acceptance and forgiveness/compassion, embracing deep trauma has to be approached in stages. (See my posts, “The Stages of Acceptance,” and “The Stages of Forgiveness/Compassion.”)
The first stage is understanding how these experiences or these aspects of being came to be. The experience that caused the trauma was itself the expression of suffering. As a monk once told me, if anyone does something that pushes your buttons or harms you, that action was a direct result of their suffering. It is how they were programmed to act in response to their suffering. No one voluntarily does something hurtful.
This is true even if someone is truly evil, the devil incarnate. And while I would not treat such a one (they are no longer human, so I don’t use the word “person”) with loving kindness, I do have compassion for them. (See my post, “Evil - How Should a Buddhist Respond?”)
The trauma itself was caused by the fragility of the ego-mind. The feeling of insecurity that we all acquire very early in our childhood. (See my post, “Insecurity - Nurture not Nature.”)
The point is that both the experience itself and the resulting trauma came about not through some freely willed action, but rather through an automatic response based on the conditioning that we and the other had received. No one was at fault in the deepest sense of the word; responsible yes, but not guilty. Guilt presumes a choice.
Understanding this leads to the second stage which is compassion, both for the person who caused the traumatic experience and for ourselves for reacting to it in a way that was traumatic. In a way which we often characterize as weak. This too has its stages (see my post noted above). We are not by nurture (we are by nature, but not nurture) compassionate. And so we must first have the intent to be compassionate based on the spiritual teachings we have received. Then we must actually open up are hearts to being compassionate. Just do it.
Once we have achieved compassion, the door is then open for the heart’s embrace. Remembering that embrace does not mean putting a positive value judgment on it, that it wasn’t bad or hurtful. Embrace is just saying it was the way it was, owning it as part of your life, and being aware of its having a positive impact in so far as making you the person you are today, seeking peace and happiness on the path.
Once you do fully embrace your experience and being, you will find that all internal and external struggle will cease to be because nothing offends anymore. And when nothing offends, you stop fighting against it, which paradoxically only gave it more power. You will be at peace.
We are all born with the Buddha nature inside us. The unborn child is thus at peace, feels safe and secure (barring negative in-the-womb experiences). But that peace is taken away from us almost from the moment of our birth and by most of the life experiences we’ve had since.
Birth, being thrust out of the womb, has to be a scary experience. When an animal is born, it is typically licked all over by the mother and is always next to the mother’s warmth until weaned. But when a baby is born, it is slapped on the behind, washed by a stranger, rolled up in a blanket and given to its mother to be held and fed before being put in a basinet by itself. Not a nurturing environment.
When a child is born, he has four basic needs: food, freedom from pain, warmth/nurturing, and physical security. These are the four irreducible needs of all human beings. (See my book, The Self in No Self.) In particular, a baby’s need for nurturing, for unconditional love, is almost without limit. So from the moment of its birth, a baby finds that its needs are not met, and the first seeds of insecurity are sown.
This pattern continues during the child’s formative first years. It’s not that parents don’t love their new child and shower it with attention; it’s that the needs of the baby and toddler go beyond what most parents are able to give. Whether it’s how they were raised, the demands of work or home, or having their own problems to deal with … it’s just the way it is. And so the child’s insecurity takes root.
As an example, there’s the question of whether and how long to let a baby cry before the parent picks up the child. From a parent’s perspective, a crying child is frequently inconvenient, and so the baby cries for some period of time. Then there’s the French perspective reported several years ago in The New Yorker that it will actually help the baby to let it cry for five minutes before picking it up. But an infant’s cry is instinctive, not reasoned, and must be responded to promptly to provide the nurturing the child needs.
This may seem very minor, but such repeated experiences create a reservoir of feeling unheard, unloved. There are few things more important to the healthy development of a child’s psyche than feeling loved unconditionally. How a baby is responded to impacts that. By the way, unconditional love does not mean that a parent can’t criticize a child, but the context within which that happens and how it is delivered does matter. (See my book, Raising a Happy Child.)
As the baby becomes a young child, proceeds through adolescence, and attains adulthood, the seeds of insecurity planted at birth and during his formative years grow to become a huge tumor inside each of us. Why?
The tumor grows because it’s fed by much of what we experience in life … at home, in school, at work, and in the media. We don’t feel respected or loved. We are either told or learn that we are clearly lacking in some way. Negative labels are applied to us … bad, stupid, ugly, fat. If we want to be loved or admired, we learn that we must change something in ourselves or acquire something. Or if we are praised, we nevertheless understand how easy it is to fall from grace and so are fearful. In fact, those who become famous or successful, although they are often thought of as having huge egos and are imperious, typically have even greater insecurities than the average person because their success is a coping mechanism and they have more to lose.
Because this insecurity runs so deep and is so threatening to us, our mind … what I refer to as the ego-mind … develops a host of strategies early on to “protect” us. If it feels we have been treated badly by others, for example, it will throw up a wall of anger or disdain which gives us a feeling of self-righteousness that obscures the hurt. If it feels we need to do more to achieve success or happiness, it creates cravings and attachments that drive us to get what we need at all costs.
But these strategies do not in fact protect us; instead, they cause us suffering. Yet we take comfort in these familiar emotions/desires because we believe they do protect us or provide us with a path to achieving happiness.
And so every person, each and every one of us, ends up a prisoner of their ego-mind … of the feelings and perceptions, emotions, judgments, cravings, and attachments that are the mind’s reaction to our life experiences. Our every action and thought is controlled by our feelings and perceptions. The habit-energy is ingrained.
Insecurity thus seen is nurture, not nature. We were not born insecure, but we were raised that way. Thankfully, though, our true Buddha nature remains inside us, buried but in tact. The path provides us the way to reconnect with our true Buddha nature, to free ourselves from this insecurity and the emotions and perceptions that flow from it, and thus find the peace and happiness that is our birthright.
There’s a line in one of my favorite spiritual poems that goes “When the mind rest undisturbed, nothing in the world offends, and when no thing offends, all obstructions cease to be, thought objects disappear.”
I have always found the phrase “thought objects disappear” to be odd. I know it does not mean that the objects disappear. But I didn’t know what to make of it.
In a truly “duh!” moment in my meditation recently, when I recited those words, I realized that what the phrase means is that when one is in that state one does not apply thought to objects. They just are. You simply observe them. You experience them directly free of the intervention of your ego-mind.
You would have thought I would have picked up on that a long time ago, but I didn’t. Such are the vagaries of the mind.
When the Buddha set turning the wheel of the dharma, he taught the Four Noble Truths regarding suffering, the cause of it, and the ending of it. As we all know, the ending of it is a real challenge, often seemingly impossible.
When I lived in Michigan and went to a rural Vietnamese Zen temple for 10 years, I received very powerful teaching from the monks there. They hammered home constantly the cause of suffering and ultimately what was necessary to relieve ourselves of that suffering … surrendering our ego to our true Buddha nature. When I wrote The Self in No Self and Scratching the Itch: Getting to the Root of Our Suffering, I related their teaching distilled into what I called the Fourfold Path to Freedom,.
The third Noble Truth related by the Buddha is realizing that by giving up our cravings, being free of them, we can end our suffering. And the fourth is the path that leads to the cessation of our cravings … the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
Many teachers operationalize this teaching by talking about mindfully ceasing to do the things that cause us suffering and doing positive things that bring us happiness. That’s fine as far as it goes but the process is too circumscribed.
The catch with the Eightfold Path is that in order to practice it one must first be free of ego … the ultimate cause of all our suffering. One cannot practice Right View or Right anything if ones ego, ones learned experience, is an active force in ones mind, because the ego will intervene by generating thoughts/obstructions which commandeer our mind and obscure our true Buddha nature, from which flows the various Right activities.
That said, I do not mean that following the Noble Eightfold Path is dependent on successfully freeing oneself from all intervention of your ego-mind. Rather as one slowly increases the moments of your life which are free of the intervention of your ego-mind, you will become more and more able to make progress on that path.
The Buddha said at one point, “To be rid of the conceit ‘I am’ – That is the greatest happiness of all.” Because only then is one truly free. But how to free ourselves from our ego?
Many Buddhist teachers do not address this matter directly. Those that face the power of our ego head on, such as Sogyal Rinpoche, teach that as our discriminating awareness strengthens through meditation, we begin to distinguish clearly between the guidance of our true Buddha nature and our ego. Eventually, the destructiveness of our ego will be clear and that will release us. Similarly, Krishnamurti calls for a “revolution of the psyche” and posits that understanding our conditioning/ego immediately without thought allows us to be free of that conditioning.
Yet many have reached such realization and still remain bound by their egos; it is that powerful and deeply-rooted. Recognizing the difficulty and the centrality of this action to leading a Right life and ending our suffering, the teaching that I received from two Vietnamese Zen monks, Ven. Huyen Te and Ven. Thai Tue, focused on a more defined path to free ourselves from our ego. I have called this the Fourfold Path to Freedom.
Somehow I have not related the Fourfold Path to Freedom in a post, just in my books. Realizing this recently, I am now filling this gap. This teaching had a huge influence on my practice and so I want to share it with you.
Understanding that all things are impermanent and changeable. Understanding that all our perceptions have no inherent nature, they are just a product of our mind, and that they are the direct cause of our suffering. Practicing the Six Paramitas. Surrendering our ego to our true Buddha nature, turning our will and our lives over to the care of our true Buddha nature.
For 20 years since receiving that teaching, I worked to discern through my practice how to not just have the intent but to truly surrender my ego to my true Buddha nature, or as I rather put it, turn my will and my life over to the care of my true Buddha nature. The monk said once, speaking to the sangha, that we had come far but that we were still standing on the precipice because we had not surrendered our ego to our true Buddha nature. He told us that the choice was ours. Not so simple! That challenge and struggle is the core of all my posts and the books I have written.
The Fourfold Path mentions the Six Paramitas. To help get us to the point where we are able to surrender our ego, it is helpful to gradually free ourselves from our ego-centric mentality and behavior. One way we do that is by developing compassion for ourselves and others. The Five Precepts are an essential place to start. But to deepen our practice, it is very helpful to practice the Six Paramitas.
The Six Paramitas are … generosity, virtuous conduct, understanding, enthusiastic effort and diligence, meditation/concentration, and wisdom. (See Chapter 5 in my book, Scratching the Itch: Getting to the Root of our Suffering.) To practice these teachings is to water the seeds of our true Buddha nature. As we develop these qualities, bring them to the surface of our consciousness, we decrease our suffering and increase our awareness, freedom from our ego, and happiness.
If we can be free of the conceit of the ego, then we will be free of our cravings and reach nirvana. This challenging process is described in great detail in my new book, How to Find Inner Peace. But again, remember that all things on the path are incremental. Walking the path is not about achieving perfection. It is the intent which is essential. Better to be free of the control of your ego 60% of the time than not at all, because the 60% will bring you peace and joy.
When I was meditating recently and reflected on the truth that my purpose in life is to offer myself and others joy, I was struck at how that truth goes to the essence of the Buddha dharma. It is up to me, it is my responsibility, to offer myself joy,. Someone or something may present the potential for joy, but it is up to me to be in a psychic space where I am open to receiving that joy.
Likewise a situation or person may present the potential for suffering. But it is up to me whether that potential becomes a reality or whether I remain at peace and happy regardless.
If it’s not the actual experience, then what makes the difference between whether we experience joy or suffering? How do we abide in that psychic space? The answer is whether, or the extent to which, we have freed ourselves from the control of our ego-mind … it’s emotions, judgments, cravings, attachments … and connected instead with our true self, our unwounded heart. Whether we have freed ourselves from negative energy and replaced it with positive energy.
This is the core of the Four Noble Truths with which the Buddha started turning the wheel of the dharma. He said the cause of our suffering is our craving … which was short-hand for all the feelings and perceptions of the ego-mind. Our suffering is not directly caused by what we experience. Indirectly, of course, but not directly. Our ego-mind is the intervening direct factor.
The reason why most people don’t make much progress on the path is because this fundamental truth is not acceptable to them. They will not let go their grievances, their anger, their fear, against what the world has done to them … whether it was their parents, siblings, peers, or our culture.
They identify so strongly with that righteous anger, with the overwhelming fear. It is how the ego-mind sets up a defense to what happened. “How is fear a defense?” the reader might ask. The ego is saying, “Don’t get in that situation again!” But the defense actually heightens the pain/hurt of the experience to psychic suffering which stays with us for our entire life. (See my post, “The Distinction between Pain and Suffering.”) And which in the one case impairs our judgment and in the other surrounds us with doubt and immobilizes us.
Until … we come to realize that these emotions are a product of the ego-mind, they are not a product of our true self. AND we understand that it is these emotions that are actually the direct cause of our suffering. That awareness gives us the ability to choose. Do we continue to follow our habitual ego-mind-driven reactions to life and suffer? Or do we seek guidance from our heart and experience peace and joy while being fully cognizant of the ills of the world and our experience.
But how do we seek the guidance of our heart? We must globally replace our negative ego-mind habit-energy with the positive energy of our heart. We must disassociate ourselves from our ego-mind.
And we do this, as a monk once taught me, by surrendering our ego to our true Buddha self. Or as I prefer to put it, by turning our will and our life over to the care of our true Buddha nature. (See my post, “Turning Your Will Over to Your True Buddha Nature.”)
And how do we implement that? By asking our true Buddha nature to open our heart to embrace all aspects of our being and experience … past, present, and future. (See my post, “The Heart’s Embrace.”) Then nothing offends, mental obstructions cease to be. We experience things directly, with dispassion, knowing that things are the way they are because it’s just the way it is. Our mind then rests undisturbed, all internal and external struggles cease to be. At this point, regardless what life throws our way, we will be at peace and happy, we will experience our inner joy, because we have freed ourselves from the control of our ego-mind.
But beware … the ego-mind will have none of this; its interests are not your best interests. So do not try to use your mind to do any of this. You must come at these efforts through your heart, through your true Buddha self. Only your unwounded heart, your true Buddha self, will answer the call to free you from your suffering. (See my post, “How to See through the Eyes of Your True Buddha Self, Your Unwounded Heart.”)
To spend as much of the day as possible in this psychic space, I encourage you to establish a daily meditation practice which will help you stay grounded, present, in contact with your true Buddha self, free of the intervention of your ego-mind, and so able to practice the Six Paramitas. This is taking refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha … in your true Buddha self. This is being there for yourself, because only you have the power to free yourself.
This is the implementation of the Fourfold Path to Freedom:
Understanding that all things are impermanent and changeable. Understanding that all our perceptions have no inherent nature, they are just a product of our mind, and that they are the direct cause of our suffering. Practicing the Six Paramitas. Surrendering our ego to our true Buddha nature, turning our will and our lives over to the care of our true Buddha nature.