A dozen or so years ago, I happened to glance at a TV when program credits were scrolling down the screen. Working online with a co-worker, I commented to him that the image on the screen moved. He hesitated, then cautiously reminded me, “It’s TV. Things move.” I assured him that I remembered his salient bit of information, and, not to worry, I was talking about the swirling background behind the credits. Apparently, mere words are no longer enough to hold our attention. We now require sensory stimulation every moment of our lives. And not just from television but from everywhere. And not just visually but for all our senses. Worse, unable to calm our mind, we agitate it even more with increased amounts of stimuli. What can we do? Stop devouring phenomena and, instead, view them with equanimity. Allow your mind to settle, and find joy in simplicity. And begin to let go of attachments by realizing that, in many ways, less truly is more.
It’s happened to all of us. Someone at work or in an organization we belong to fails to complete their assigned part of a project on time. When it comes to us, it comes with a message that it’s up to us to get things back on schedule for the next deadline. Which is in six days. Including the weekend. And so we work all day and into the night for the next several days, neglect our other jobs, frantically re-schedule prior commitments, and become frazzled. And extremely testy. Co-workers avoid us, and family members silently place our dinner on our desk before tiptoeing out of the room. Having gone through this ourselves, let’s not inflict it on others. This isn’t about managing time better or about procrastination, although they’re important. It’s about respect—respect for those whose work follows ours. Respect for their time, respect for their family, and respect for all those we will inconvenience should we fail to meet our responsibilities.
Suggest to someone that they “let go” and they’ll very likely think you’re telling them to stop caring. Clearly, that’s not what a Buddha wishes us to do. By letting go, we don’t care less. We care more! As someone recently said, letting go can feel like there’s a presence between you and the person you are trying to help. This presence serves as a buffer, a magnifier, a helper. It’s no longer just you—an expectation-ridden, self-oriented, willing but woefully inadequate ordinary being—standing before the person who desperately needs assistance. By letting go in the way the Buddha taught, we will find that our ego, expectations, and viewpoints are being filtered out. It’s as if all the “me” is eliminated from what is happening. As this occurs, our sincere wish to help, our empathy, and our limited wisdom are magnified. And since we’re trying to practice as the Buddha taught, it’s as if we’re being assisted in our helping. And we are.
If our parents were able to look over our shoulder while we’re emailing, they would likely be appalled. “You forgot to say thank you!” In an age of instantaneous communication, courtesy is too often a thing forgotten. For example, a person emails another, perhaps asking how to do something. Perhaps asking a favor. The recipient graciously stops what she’s doing to carefully compose a reply. It may be what the person needs to know or an apology for not being able to help. She hits send. And unbeknownst to her, it’s also the end of the conversation. It’s the end because the person who emailed for help didn’t respond with a “Thank you.” Or anything else. It’s akin to someone asking for something, getting it, and then walking away without any acknowledgement, the item firmly in his grasp. Most of us wouldn’t do this. And yet many don’t send emails with “Thank you.” We need to. Why? It’s polite. Not a good enough reason? You may want another favor.
“Phew, now I feel better.” But what about the other person? What if they are no better than we are at letting frustration roll off our backs, like water off a duck’s back? Even though they didn’t experience what we did, they can still pick up on our pain. The pain compounds when mixed with their affection for us. It’s as if we’re clearing our backyard of rubbish. How? By dumping it in someone else’s. Even though those who care about us willingly listen to our ranting and whinging, is it fair to ask them to? We’re not showing that we care about them when we offload our garbage of negative emotions onto them. So let’s stop our rubbish from leaving our backyard, stop heaping it onto another. Instead, let’s turn that mental rubbish into compost! Mix it with patience and aerate it with forgiveness. Replace the bad with the good, and transform that garbage into something useful.
Before teaching others, a Buddhist teacher needs to successfully practice the principles learned from the sutras and accomplished masters. For a Buddhist student, he or she needs to willingly set aside other teachings to focus on only one. Lacking this focus would be like pouring tea into a cup filled with hot chocolate. You’d get a cup overflowing with an unpalatable liquid. In similar fashion, mixing teachings muddles all these teachings. Additionally, a Dharma affinity needs to exist between teacher and student—a willing teacher, happy to teach the student, and a willing student, all too happy to learn from the teacher. Such a relationship is essential. Without one, try as we might to learn from an accomplished master, our learning will be limited. Our inspiration to practice will waver. Better to learn from another master, perhaps even a less-accomplished one. A strong affinity will make us more diligent in learning. And in practice, too.
And as with all lines in the sand, it’s easy to slip past the line, into the side we hope to avoid. The deciding factor? Craving. Desire. Like missing something when it’s absent. Say, the morning triple-shot latte we had during that rush project. Or like wanting something not to end. Say, an evening spent listening to our favorite music at a concert. Think of attachments as failures to accord with the current situation. They become unfulfilled wishes, which is the seventh of the eight sufferings. And they are very difficult to detect because it’s such a fine line between them and sincere appreciation. But since attachments lead to suffering, we have to detect them. And so we need to observe our thoughts. When we fix our morning coffee, do thoughts of lattes arise? Does our usual simple cup now seem less satisfactory? Do we start checking prices online for that Nespresso machine everyone’s talking about? If so, we’ve slipped over that line.
Planting Amituofo seeds in our store consciousness is akin to planting bean seeds in a garden. If we view gardening as a burden, we’ll end up inattentive and careless. Very likely, the bean plants will not thrive. But if we carefully nurture those seeds, we can have strong healthy plants. Planting Amituofo seeds—chanting the buddha-name—works the same way. With dedicated and focused chanting, our properly planted Amituofo seeds will grow strong. As we keep planting more seeds, they’ll begin to overwhelm our selfish ones. These bad karma seeds are those that we have planted, not just in this lifetime but in our lifetimes since time immemorial. Birth as a human is incredibly rare. The chance of being born as a human who can chant “Amituofo” is beyond imagining. We need to get busy. We need to focus and chant sincerely, planting seed after seed after seed.
This, the second of the five precepts and also the ten virtuous karmas, is often explained as not taking another’s property without his or her agreement. We might well wonder at the prominent placement of this precept. How many of us would steal others’ possessions? But we’re not just talking about things here. Buddhism regards stealing as taking anything without first asking permission. What is taken can include someone’s time, their peace of mind, their feeling of security, happiness. Stealing is taking advantage of another person, taking things from work, shouting at a child, avoiding paying taxes, bringing home a shell from a public beach, not readily letting someone into your lane while driving, making others work harder to meet a deadline because we missed ours. The list is endless. The solution simple. Not easy! Simple. Humbly approach all actions with respect for the rights and property of others. In keeping this precept, we are also giving fearlessness.
One would think that having reached “the age of majority” (i.e., being a grown-up), we’d have gotten used to the reality that very few things work out as we hope or expect. Perhaps conditions shifted. Perhaps others had their plans changed, which affected ours. Perhaps our expectations were a tad too optimistic. Whatever the reason, most days unfold as a series of unplanned happenings, which requires us to adjust what we are doing or plan to do. As the day wears on and our energy wanes, we tend to recall and relive our frustrations. And so, too much of our day is wasted on unhappy thoughts. Rather, appreciate the times when things work out, even if it’s for a little while. Then we’ll be in a much better frame of mind, able to handle what comes at us. Able to improve in our practice of not being a slave to our mind, but its master.
Remember the tale of the blind men, with each one taken to a different part of an elephant? To its head, an ear, a tusk, its trunk, its stomach, a foot, its tail, and also the tuft of its tail. Asked to describe the elephant, each man announced what they felt: a pot, a basket, a plowshare, a plow, a storehouse, a pillar, a pestle, and a brush. We can only imagine that as each man proclaimed what an elephant was, he must have wondered what on earth the others were talking about. But every one of them, sure of what they felt, became more insistent that he was right. And yes, the others had to be wrong. The result: they began fighting each other. Instead of sharing what they had learned. Instead of discussing among themselves why they had reached such different opinions. When we, like those men, become adamant that we know all that needs to be known and close our mind to others, we too run the serious risk of missing what really is.
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of us like to be praised. This is not necessarily all bad. Praise, especially from those entrusted with the responsibility to raise us, teaches us how to behave respectfully and ethically. It encourages us to act in ways that enhances our lives and not detract from them. Clearly good. But praise should not drive our behavior because that would make praise our goal. Rather, our goal should be to not make mistakes—either technically or ethically. Those who wish us to become honorable adults teach and exemplify honorable behavior and humility. But there are always others who grow up craving praise. At any cost. So from influential people on Twitter to the neighborhood teenager who uses Snapchat, we have people who will do anything for attention, for praise. A terribly risky, and sad, way to live.
The honeysuckle shrub can grow so tightly compacted that even the most persistent weeds cannot penetrate it. The plant stands untouchable—any attempted incursion would be forestalled. We can only imagine the stamina of the seeds and the tenacity of the roots that enable the plant to remain impregnable. Imagine planting in our minds Amituofo seeds that have similar stamina and tenacity. We reinforce these super seeds by planting more and more of them. In time, these seeds will grow, their once-shallow roots getting stronger. Provide our Amituofo seeds with the right conditions—our earnest cultivation and the mental weeding of bad habits—and they will thrive. In time, like those dense, impregnable roots of the honeysuckle plant, our good roots would forestall any incursion. With this accomplished, our garden will bloom, our fruit of birth in the Pure Land will mature. Finally, we will go home.
One of Buddhism’s four all-embracing methods is kind words. Picturing an example for this, we might come up with a doting grandmother whose grandson puts Play-Doh into her cup of tea causing it to overflow. Smiling, she tsks “Alan” to him. He, in turn, just laughs at her. Ah, her words are so kind! Not really. Harsher words may be kinder. Like those from the shocked mother who turns to her son and firmly says, “Alan! That’s not the right way to treat your grandmother.” The mother then goes on to explain why it is wrong. She spells out the right behavior for the circumstance and tells her son why he should apologize to his grandmother. The grandmother says what we imagine a grandmother might say. But the mother’s words are the truly kind ones because they teach the type of behavior that her son will need to get along well with people. Kind words aren’t soft words, but rather those that help us become better people.
As much as we wish for something to happen, without the right circumstances, it cannot. What we now have or lack, what we now enjoy or suffer, has all come about due to our past thoughts and actions. The same principle will hold for tomorrow. There’s no magic wand to wave; it’s all up to us. Now we need to purposefully apply the principle to our life. For example, wishing to find a Buddhist master to learn from is not enough unless we are very fortunate and our newly arisen wish coincides with the necessary conditions. In such a case, finding our master occurs naturally, like dominoes toppling over one by one, all in a row. Lacking such incredible good timing, such good fortune, we need to create the necessary conditions by learning and practicing where we are. When possible, we can also attend retreats. Having patiently and diligently created our conditions, in time, we will meet the master. And intuitively know—yes, this is the one.
Thousands of years ago, very likely trusting only those who looked like you could have saved your life. Strangers, people who looked different, might well kill you. Reasonable, in light of how they too were taught not to trust anyone looking different. So, with survival the foremost concern, humans had good reason to distrust outsiders—those outside their family, their clan, and over time, those outside their village. Gradually, distrust embedded itself in our DNA. And in our store consciousness. In dangerous circumstances and times, such distrust is understandable. But too often foolish. Distrusting others because they appear different doesn’t save us; it eviscerates us and crushes others. Why? Differentiation arises from dualism. It’s me vs you, us vs them. It personifies ego attachment: I’m right, so whatever others think and do is wrong. They lose, so I gain. This shows ignorance of cause and effect. It also robs others of happiness. It gives fear, not fearlessness. It kills hope. It holds the power to destroy.
Incredible! Our being born in the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Joy is not a matter of if. It’s a question of when. Having stepped onto the Pure Land path, we can dawdle as we become distracted by all the phenomena we encounter. And truly, since we’re still here in samsara, this is clearly what we’ve been doing and for far too long now. Or, we can leap ahead. Since our goal has been determined—and our belief, vow, and practice assure us of reaching it—the only unknown is how long we will take to get there. It’s a matter of choice. We make the wrong choice every time we become distracted by daily events, every time we opt for short-lived enjoyment, every time we fall prey to old habits. Distracted time and again on where we’ve been instead of what lies ahead. Of making that leap forward. When in despair of reaching that goal, remember: with every breath, we’re closer to the Pure Land.
Something is seen or heard and it bothers us, a lot. It’s not fair. It’s not thoughtful. It’s not supposed to be that way. Whatever the reason, we are incapable of just brushing the thought aside and getting on with our life. It’s pretty ironic when you think of it. What we want to do is focus on the thought of Amituofo, but our mind keeps slipping away from him. What we don’t want to do is keep thinking negative thoughts. But our mind keep returning to them as surely as chicks scurry back to the mother hen. We end up turning those irritating thoughts into our latest mantra—reviewing them like a favorite movie, refining them as if editing the next best-seller. Maybe returning to our thoughts is understandable—after all, the irritation is just outside our window. Or perhaps we just can’t, actually won’t, forgive and forget. Well, we need to. If you were to die right now, what would you want to be thinking of—Amituofo or that thought?
Graciousness. What a lovely, old-fashioned word. It brings to mind ladies in hooped skirts and men in top hats out for a morning stroll through the park. Yes, well, that’s an unfortunate image. Why? Because graciousness is the unselfish offering of courtesy, being accommodating and kind, and respecting others and being at ease with oneself. It’s not a virtue of a past age. We need it today if there is to be a tomorrow. Let’s fast-forward one of those couples to today. Fully kitted out for their morning jog, smart phones tucked into their armbands and earbuds in, our couple is busily making calls to get an early start on the day. In their world, and woefully in ours too, graciousness is not on the agenda. Really? Is there no time to let someone give his opinion before offering yours? No time to let someone move into the queue, ahead of you? Compliment a co-worker on a job well done? Play with your child? No time? There’s always time for the things we want to do. Always.
We seem to have reached a point at which everything we do entails competition. For me to gain, someone else has to lose. People crave my product, not yours. Like me more on Facebook than you. Agree with me, not you. Clearly, people don’t grasp the ubiquity of reaping what they sow. The problem is compounded by most people in believing that they have only one lifetime, their current one. And so they try to make theories from what they can remember. Tragically, this is like looking at their actions of the past ten seconds and basing their decisions on those brief moments. Short-sighted, to say the least. Having learned about rebirth and causality, we know that causes need to have been planted previously to have certain things happen—like selling a product or being liked by others. So we can relax. What a relief to stop trying to outdo everyone. Instead, we can now help others accomplish what they hope for by teaching them how to plant the right seeds.
Welcome to the Age of Plenty. Odds are, if you’re reading this, you have the good fortune to participate in our current consumer age. Offering a proliferation of products and hitherto unknown convenience, this age offers cheap throw-away goods paired with ease of disposal. A winning combination! Use a plastic disposable razor a few times, toss it. Get a cup of coffee on the way to work, drink the brew, toss the cup. Subscribe to a service that expresses over a one-meal box, ingredients included. Fix dinner, then toss the box, ingredient packaging, cold keepers, unused ingredients (now or later). Give a child a toy, watch the toy break, toss it, buy another. Modern convenience. Easy to get. (Think Amazon). Easy to toss. (Think curbside trash pickup.) What else is disposed of? Money. Good fortune. Finite resources. Any real sense of appreciation. Gone too is the happiness of those who are doomed to come after us.
If we’re fortunate, we will have someone in our life who cares enough to listen to our recount of a displeasing event. But what about her? As she listens, she will share in our frustration. So, unless she’s better than we are at sloughing off painful experiences, we will adversely affect her with our grievances. When speaking with those who care enough to listen to us, we need to consider what we are about to say. We don’t have to be paranoid about this. We just need to be considerate. Why don’t we just shed the memory of painful events before they upset anyone else? Do we need to recount every little event in our lives? Really need to talk so much? Text so much? Share every detail of our lives on social media? It’s not necessary to become a recluse. We do, however, need to value all those we are fortunate enough to have in our life. And respect them, and their peace of mind.
We know we should observe the first of the ten great vows, which is to respect all Buddhas of the past, present, and future. But how do we treat the things that we have? We should respect them as well. Do so as a meditation. Chant “Amituofo” while organizing, cleaning, and putting the objects back in their proper places. These are all ways to correctly care for individual objects and our immediate environment. This respect shows our appreciation for we understand that it’s due to our good fortune that we have all that we do. Viewing objects in this way entails considering each item’s intended use. Properly using objects and caring for them shows our appreciation for all the resources and time expended in creating and getting them to us. If we no longer have a use for something, we can pass it on to someone who can use it. Don’t let it be one more forgotten, unwanted object collecting dust at the back of our closet.
It happens in an instant. We meet someone, and seemingly unfounded feelings overwhelm us. We don’t like him. We don’t trust him. He didn’t do anything, and yet we pull back. Actually, such feelings are founded. They’re triggered by causes planted in the store consciousness. Though we’re in a different lifetime, we intuit it’s an old enmity. And we take up where we left off—distrusting, disliking, even hating. Having recognized an enmity, we need to transform our feelings of aversion because the last thing we want is to have bitter feelings intensify. How do we transform our feelings? By reminding ourselves that we’re living different lives now. Perhaps our enmity arose from a misunderstanding. What if it was all a mistake? We were ignorant then, both of us. The other person may still be, but we know better now. We realize what can happen when an enmity worsens. For both our sakes, we need to let go of the past and find a way back to normalcy.
Those of us who do not wield much influence over others should be grateful. And immensely relieved. Any harm we do in saying or doing something inept will be limited in scope. Therefore, any damage we do will be minimized. But consider those, due to position and wealth, who do affect the lives of untold numbers of people. Terrifying! Unless they act from empathy and wisdom, from the heart of selflessness, their actions will be tainted with arrogance. And intolerance. And fear. These are not the qualities of greatness; they are the instruments of discord. The higher the authority, the more pervasive the harm, the more intense the pain. Wherever we are in the ranking of such things, we need to blink, step back, and then examine what lies at the heart of our own actions. Discerning the possibilities that lie within our own small sphere of influence, we can then join the ranks of those who alleviate, not inflict, pain.
When someone asks for our help, do we ponder these: What if something goes wrong? What if the outcome is not what she is hoping for? Will we somehow get blamed? With a multitude of such concerns, we’ll have less time and energy for the project itself. And so we don’t stop to think of what-ifs; we just start to help. If the seeker of help deeply understands karma, understands that the project’s outcome depends on her conditions, then what a relief it is for us! Knowing that she too understands causality, we can focus on the task and not be plagued with worry over failures. If the outcome is not as hoped, it’s not our fault. If it does work out, it’s not to our credit. With such thinking, we eliminate our ego and self-centeredness from the equation. Who wouldn’t want to help someone so at ease with conditions? Who wouldn’t want to help us if we were too?
Due to our karmas in past lifetimes, we have set the course for lifetimes to come. But our course is not fixed. We have the ability to change it through the many choices we make every day. It’s like adjusting the flow of a river. By placing enough stones strategically, we can alter what seems inevitable. Besides placement, we also need to decide the number of stones and their sizes. But do not drop them haphazardly—the river might be diverted toward nearby houses. Position them wisely to guide the water, perhaps toward an unusually parched field. So let’s decide not to drift, like a wild untamed river. Let’s avoid the obvious setbacks. Better to orchestrate the flow, no matter how few opportunities we get, to try to consciously make things better. Don’t get crushed in the rapids of suffering. Don’t drown in enjoyment. Slow things down to understand what is happening. Redirect ourselves so that we can redirect others. Help ourselves so that we can help others.
Thanks to our parents, who likely learned good manners from their own parents, most of us were taught how to behave in public. So, as adults, we are especially civil when interacting with strangers and acquaintances. It seems, however, that we find a high level of civility difficult to maintain. And so at times we simply forget to be civil at all. Ironically, we feel so relaxed with those whom we spend the most time with that we allow courtesy to fly out the proverbial window. We end up treating strangers more respectfully—and more considerately—than we do family members and friends. While relatives will find it difficult to leave us, friends have fewer such restraints. Although it will cause them distress, they can simply walk out of our life. All because we forget to treat them with respect and consideration. We should remember close friendships are rare and need tending. Having few good friends, we can’t afford carelessness, can’t afford to lose a good friend.
Eating an entire bag of chips. Browsing online and impulsively buying a new gadget. Hitting snooze on the alarm clock while we burrow back into the sheets. We do them, and more, because we feel entitled to them. Perhaps we work hard and feel a reward is deserved. Perhaps we do not work hard at all and seek to distract ourselves from self-reproach. Perhaps we are unhappy. Or just bored. And so we indulge ourselves and feel a surge of enjoyment. But all too soon that momentary pleasure passes and only the memory remains. And with it, guilt. We know the futility of such indulgences, and we tell ourselves not to repeat them. And yet, we do. Feelings of frustration, remorse, embarrassment fester within us. They linger, enduring far longer than any fleeting satisfaction from our latest bout of indulgence. What can we do? Understand that we have more to do. Commit ourselves to doing it. And get to work.
Peace. When we hear this word, our thoughts often zoom in to another: World. We smile. Then sigh. World peace is a lovely ideal, but one which feels utterly beyond us. So how about something smaller, something doable. A plausible ideal: peace in our little corner of the world. Granted, on many days even this seems beyond us, but at least we now have a goal. Indeed, fostering harmony is why we learn Buddhism and cultivate ourselves. What do we cultivate? We cultivate self-discipline to refrain from speech that would disturb others. We cultivate broad-mindedness to better appreciate and respect others’ views. Cultivate compassion to see a stranger’s suffering as clearly as our own and to seek a way to alleviate it. Cultivate humility to realize we acted improperly and need to apologize. And we cultivate generosity to share our good fortune with those who have less than we do. Succeeding in these, we will help bring peace to those around us.