The first of Samantabhadra’s ten great vows is “Respect all Buddhas.” That sounds easy; how could we not respect a Buddha! We need to better understand the word all. “All Buddhas” are not just current Buddhas, but those of the future as well. Who are these future Buddhas? All sentient beings. Since all sentient beings have buddha-nature, all will become Buddhas. Now let’s go one step further: all insentient beings have dharma-nature. Dharma-nature is the same as buddha-nature. So all beings, sentient and insentient, have the same nature. How do we show our respect to such diverse beings? To sentient beings—human and animal—we offer fearlessness and friendship. With non-sentient beings, those objects we come into contact with, we care for them in a fitting manner, keeping them clean and in order. We thus appropriately respect all beings: sentient and insentient, regardless of form or nature.
With alarming ease, hurtful words can stream out of our mouths as unrestricted as a flood-swollen river bursting through a dam. And just as everything in the way of a raging river is laid to waste, those stricken by our verbal onslaught can end up dazed, wondering what just happened. After we speak harsh words, we may find the courage to apologize. If we are fortunate, the other person forgives us. While forgiveness lets us off the hook temporarily, we may still have to endure future karmic consequences. By saying harsh words, we break the fundamental precept of “Do no harm.” Instead of giving fearlessness, we give fear. All because we give in to impatience and intolerance, yet again. This cannot continue. We need to slow down, realize the harm we are doing, and develop patience. We need “Amituofo.”
We often think of forgiveness in terms of major misdeeds. After all, forgiving others is hard to carry out. Surely, it requires a serious reason. But if we save forgiveness just for major wrongs, we lose a vital cultivation tool. We need to forgive on a regular basis and not occasionally because it is the niggling everyday slights that we keep running into, not the major misdeeds. When others impugn or mistreat us, we need to forgive them. When they inconvenience, irritate, or just plain bother us, we need to forgive them. Then, stop thinking of the person and get on with our life. How do you forgive and forget, and why do it? Understanding causality, we realize that what was just done to us was the natural result of a karmic deed. And we remember that just as we want to alleviate our suffering we should also wish to alleviate the suffering of the other person. Together, we have been continuously fueling the flames of our shared anger. When we forgive another person, the fire is doused.
Having embraced this vow, how much of our day is spent fulfilling it? And how much is spent working, studying, eating, sleeping, socializing and relaxing, or frittering time away in front of a TV and on the Internet? Little wonder that while we remain in samsara, all we can manage, at the most, is help a few individuals ease their current suffering. Despite good intentions, our help turns out to be as useful as sticking a bandage on a hemorrhaging wound. Plus, in their next lifetime, we won’t be around to apply another bandage as karmic wounds reopen and the suffering resumes. But as soon as we get to the Pure Land, we’ll begin helping beings—energetically, skillfully, unceasingly. How? By teaching the way to heal—to permanently suture—the wound as we show all beings how to end their endless rebirths. They will then be able to liberate themselves from the cycle of rebirth. Forever. This is how we help all beings.
Let’s face it, few of us have the position or power to sway others. But that’s just fine because being devoid of any sort of influence over others frees us from egoistic expectations. It can also save us from karmic retributions incurred from our improperly wielding power. We’ll do something just because it’s the right thing to do. It makes everything so much easier. There’s no karmic mess to worry about. No one to ask what they think. We can focus on implementing our plans without wasting energy worrying about others’ reactions. Our happiness, our feeling of accomplishment, will come entirely from doing the right thing. If others notice what we are doing and change for the better, excellent. If no one notices, that’s fine. We will have successfully reinforced our natural desire to do what is proper. And not because we harbor unrealistic hopes. We do it for the pure joy of doing the right thing.
Dictionaries define sincerity with words like “genuine” and “honest.” Let’s apply these to a teacher with a disinterested student. She genuinely wants to help him appreciate the day’s lesson. Now let’s add a Buddhist aspect, where sincerity is defined as a sharply focused mind, a mind free of wandering thoughts. Our teacher increases her efforts—she focuses single-mindedly on helping him. Her mind does not wander off to her weekly yoga class or tomorrow’s exam. With concentration, she brings together her energy, experience, and mental acuity. Her mind doesn’t leap from one unformed idea to another, from almost devising a way to help only to be distracted by another thought. She is better able to recall his earlier problems, their past conversations, and the methods she had used. Such conscientious efforts will inspire him to try harder. Such is the power of a sincere mind without wandering thoughts.
Throughout our past lives, we planted incalculable seeds, some of which have matured in this lifetime. Far more have not. For example, when you gave fearlessness, you planted the seeds for a healthy, long life. But what if those seeds have not yet matured? Very likely you will be undergoing health problems, maybe even severe enough to affect your lifespan. And so, you suffer. Now, imagine I come along and, observing your problems, compare you to a healthy person we both know. In an instant, I mind another’s business by not minding my speech. With no right for me to do either, your suffering increases. Fearlessness is needed but I do not give it! Thus, I also increase my suffering, my future good health. So instead of comparing one person to another, celebrate the past deeds of the fortunate one and encourage the other to plant more such seeds for a better future.
How often have you sighed: Why did I say that? How could I have acted so callously? If only I hadn’t! Guilty thoughts can haunt us for the rest of our life, sneaking up on us, unwanted and unexpectedly. We just don’t seem able to let go of painful memories of the harm we inflicted. But we need to. If not for our own sake, then for the well-being of others. Being guilt-stricken over personal idiocies doesn’t make us better people. Think you’re repaying a karmic debt? Who are you repaying it to? Who is benefitting from your guilt? Somehow, someway, we need to release our guilty feelings. It’s not that we no longer care about what we did. We do. But of greater concern is what we do from now on. The best thing we can do is get to the Pure Land because from there, finally, we will be able to find and help all those we harmed. So much better than drowning in guilt.
Of the three karmas—thought, speech, and action—speech is the one that gets us into the most trouble. It’s so easy! (1) Open mouth. (2) Say whatever comes to mind. And herein lies the problem. Oblivious of the countless infinitesimal thoughts streaming through our mind, we’re so caught up in events and our feelings that we’re not even aware of what we’re about to blurt out. But out the words come. And it’s too late. Instantly regretting them, we wonder what on earth possessed us. Once again, we resolve to monitor our thoughts before we embarrass ourselves further. And once again, the energy that it takes to do this stuns us. It’s exhausting. Plus, by the time we decide how best to say something, the conversation is on something else. How much easier it would be to not offer our every rising opinion, to speak only when necessary, and to keep our mouth in what is often the safest position—shut.
Attachments—those myriad things we cling to that bind us to endless rebirths and suffering. The awakened ones advise that, for us to end our suffering, we have to let go of our attachments. But such advice sounds like existing in a monochrome world while those around us are enjoying a world ablaze with color. If we think this way, we have misunderstood. When we relinquish attachments, we still hold the person, the object, the experience, the idea in our hands. We marvel at being able to hold them thus, awed by how something so precious has come to us. This is not the same as wanting to keep them always with us, never letting them go. When we try to hold on to phenomena permanently, we are wrapping our arms around them. If we clasp, say, a rare songbird in our arms, it will be crushed by our clinging. It will die. Allowing it to rest lightly on our hand, it will thrust out its chest to joyously sing, as we are filled with delight, not attachments.
Life would be much easier if we just knew in advance how our efforts turn out. If positive, we would proceed. If negative, we would cease our labors, knowing that our endeavors were destined to fail. A very simple formula. Alas, most of us do not have the calm, clear mind to know whether conditions will prove favorable. And so, we proceed as best we can, always trying to work on problems as they arise. We just plod on, bit by bit, in hopes that our good intentions will join with skillful means to find fertile conditions. Will it happen? Maybe not. But maybe it will, for our good-intentioned plodding may just be what is needed. Whatever the outcome, we will have planted positive seeds for our future. Then, after knowing in our heart that we sincerely did our best, we can finally let go of regret and disappointment.
The past is just that: the past. It’s our reality fixed in time. Bemoaning what we did, or failed to do, achieves little. If we were supposed to have done something, we would have. Since we didn’t, we clearly hadn’t planted enough seeds and nurtured enough conditions to accomplish it. Very possibly, we hadn’t managed to overcome our selfish, lazy habits. Possibly hadn’t wanted to be bothered, to do more. Now, disappointed by our failure, we can sink further into dismay, or we can rouse ourselves and make changes. Or, painfully no longer having such an option, we can find ways to be kinder to those still in our life. We cannot alter our past mistakes because they are fixed in time. But we can remedy our selfishness, bad habits, and inclination to make poor choices, for these are not yet set. To accomplish this, we need to leave the past, pay attention to the present, and keep an eye on the future.
Most of us would probably agree that when people act differently from the way we do, they’re not necessarily wrong. At least we know it intellectually. But, from the judgmental mumbling going on in our head, we still feel that those people are wrong. Just recall something that happened recently. How did we view it? What was our perspective? Many of our thoughts were still critical, were they not? We were shocked, exasperated, disappointed, bewildered. We blamed others for not having acted correctly; “correctly” being defined as how we would have acted. By learning why people conduct themselves as they do, we will better understand their actions. Maybe we will realize that what they did wasn’t wrong after all. Just different. So in those situations when we do need to correct someone—an employee, a child, someone who requests our guidance—we first need to learn what prompted their behavior.
Unappealing and unwanted events assail us all the time. When they do, it can be very tempting to grumble, “Why me?” To which we might raise an eyebrow and query, “Well, who else?” Everything that happens to us is a consequence of the causes we have created, the seeds we have planted. Having planted onion seeds last year in our flower beds, it would be silly to wander out the back door of our house this year and demand, “What are all those onions doing in my flower beds!” We planted them. No one snuck in under cover of darkness and sowed those seeds in our impregnable back yard. We’re the only person in the universe who can plant seeds in our private garden. No one else. Similarly, no one else can tend our garden. Choosing the seeds, planting, watering, fertilizing, and weeding them—it’s all up to us, no one else So the next time something pops up in the garden of our life, we can wisely nod and acknowledge, “Yup. That’s my karma.”
Anything worthwhile takes time, patience, and attention; call it stick-to-itiveness. The same holds true for correcting our mistakes. We need to keep chipping away at them like a sculptor steadily working on a block of marble, looking for and then carefully eliminating superfluous bits to reveal perfection. Like a sculptor steadily chiseling away every day, we too need to keep chipping away at our faults, even when we don’t feel like it. It won’t be easy. Those who know us might well declare that not only are we not cutting down our mistakes, we seem to be perfecting them. But we need to emulate the sculptor’s steady progress, reflecting daily then finding and eliminating faults. Initially, we will not even notice that we are making progress. But as we improve, we will flake off more and more faults until, finally, we reveal the perfection within ourselves.
You are surrounded by people with nothing to lose, their barely suppressed anger radiating off them in waves. As they loom over you, goading you into a fight, it takes courage to remain composed, and not retaliate. Courage. This is not a word we usually associate with the Buddha’s teachings. Perhaps we should. It takes courage—steadfastness in the face of fear—to forgive when wronged, to respect when derided, to persist when overwhelmed, and, especially, to stand peacefully when goaded. We need courage to overcome our niggling fear of trusting the Buddhas and our teachers. Courage, too, to overcome our fear of being unworthy of the trust the Buddhas and our teachers have placed in us. Our fear is yet one more obstacle to overcome. If the man in the above account could face up to and overcome his fear, then how can we, experiencing far more favorable conditions, do less?
To correct our faults we need to change. How? There are three possible ways available to us. We can catch the faults before we commit them. We can understand why they are so harmful. Or we can change from our heart, thus ensuring that everything we think and do is correct. The first method, to catch faults one by one, demands vigilance—we have to weigh every thought before we speak or act. It’s a struggle. The second method necessitates an in-depth understanding of cause and consequence. The third method, the most powerful, does not require us to weigh every thought. Additionally, our understanding need not be so thorough. Our thoughts will already be properly focused on selflessly completing tasks and interacting with others. Or, ideally, chanting the buddha-name. With our focus on correct thoughts, our erroneous, wandering thoughts will gradually fade. With “Amituofo,” our heart will become serene and pure, empty of faults, naturally wise.
One of our fundamental afflictions is thinking that we have an independent self and that what we achieve is due to our own efforts. Such thinking leads to other afflictions, including arrogance and pride. While we may have put forth much effort, we shouldn’t claim all the credit. Or even most of it. Our parents gave us life. Our teachers guide us, friends encourage us, fellow practitioners reassure us, co-workers challenge us, exemplars inspire us, family members nudge us, enemies drive us. People built the schools and buildings we study, work, and live in. Others provide the food that sustains us. In no way are we independent. We are joined body, spirit, and mind with all those who formed us. And to everything and everyone we have been and are a part of and interact with, we are linked inseparably. Any accomplishment we might have belongs to all of them as well. Be grateful for their presence.
Let’s be honest, letting go of sensory indulgence can sound so, well, spartan. Having spent years bettering our lives only to abandon the things that we now take for granted and enjoy feels so, well, illogical. Don’t worry. Our goal is a level of joy we have yet to realize. It is not about being deprived. What we discard are attachments to the phenomena cluttering our lives in samsara. We shed our attachments because they bring us, at most, mere fleeting pleasure. In effect, our happiness caused by something yesterday will turn to sorrow tomorrow when the conditions are no longer present. Compared to endless joy, momentary pleasure does not hold much value. Admittedly, it takes a lot of letting go to attain infinite joy. But we don’t have to wait to start benefitting from our efforts. Bit by bit, as we progress in letting go, we will realize a hitherto unknown sense of ease and fulfillment.
Before voicing our views or interceding in something we witness or hear about, we should first determine whether to even involve ourselves. Sound callous? It’s really not because much of what transpires isn’t our personal concern, isn’t actually our business. Regardless, we invariably have opinions regarding the mistakes people make and in what manner they should rectify them. But instead of declaring our views to all and sundry, we should ask ourselves some questions. Am I responsible in some way for the welfare of those involved? Do I share any accountability for what is now happening? Have I done or failed to do something that brought those involved to this point? In other words, we need to determine whether it is our place to intercede? If we lack the wisdom to know the answers to these questions, might we not also lack the wisdom to intervene wisely?
With an abundance of Buddhist chants and mantras, it becomes tempting to learn several so as to select the most appropriate one for any situation we encounter. But for those of us who are still unaccomplished practitioners, such an approach poses a dilemma. It’s the same dilemma we encounter while trying to simultaneously practice diverse schools: unfocused familiarity instead of focused proficiency. And to further complicate things, when under pressure we might not be sure which mantra or chant to use. Wouldn’t it be much easier if there was one that was ideal for all situations? Fortunately for us, there is. When sick, chant “Amituofo.” When concerned about others, chant “Amituofo.” When unsure what to do, feeling irritated, worried or scared, when dying—“Amituofo.” By chanting “Amituofo” for all our needs, we will strengthen our surest method for ending all afflictions and suffering.
“What other one?” you ask. The one stuffed with the accumulated dust-gathering detritus from uncountable lifetimes—your mind. Yes, that one. To appreciate the true situation, imagine you’ve lived in the same house since birth. Let’s look at your attic. You have been stuffing things into it on a daily basis. No, make that minute-by-minute. Your home’s top-most floor has thus expanded to unimaginable proportions. But that volume is nothing compared to our mental top-most floor. We’ve been stuffing things into it willy-nilly—since time immemorial. ”Oh dear!” Indeed. Now let’s say we want to move. Where to? The Western Pure Land. But in order to move, we need to clean out our attic. There’s no time to hold up each item, reliving fond or bitter memories. If it’s not a good seed, a virtue, an Amituofo, out it goes. When our attic is rid of the detritus, of attachments, we get to move. Finally.
Whether a participant, an observer, or someone further removed, everyone involved in or touched by a dispute is harmed. Those who exchanged harsh words or even actual blows will have planted the seeds for painful future karmic retributions. Those who witnessed what happened will find themselves impacted in varying ways and degrees. The affected ones will continue to influence others they come into contact with. The rancor engendered by the conflict injures everyone all around it. Like embers falling away from a smoldering fire, they scorch and sear all they touch. Thus, the number of beings negatively impacted continues to grow in ways the combatants never imagined. As untold beings get affected one by one, the adverse karmic retributions will continue to mount for the original participants, especially for the one who started it all. Yet just one more reason we should think before acting.
So many books today seem best suited to a mere single reading. This could well be due to our having learned all there is in the book. Fortunately, there are books that we can return to and benefit from the rest of our lives. For example, Buddhist books, sutras, and commentaries. In fact, the more we read these, the more we benefit from them. We need not hurriedly turn the page to find out what happens next. We already know. Knowing what lies ahead, our mind can be at ease. As the very familiarity of the words calms us, our increasingly peaceful mind can more deeply absorb the embedded wisdom in what we are reading. We linger contemplatively on a particularly moving passage. Another passage, we view in a formerly unseen light. As we take in the Buddhist book at progressively more sublime, subtle, and meaningful levels, repeatedly reading it transforms what was once a leisure activity into a meditative practice.
We will always encounter obstacles. That’s our reality in samsara. The obstacles may be external: no place to practice, no teacher. Or internal: procrastination, apathy, doubt. If we linger over such difficulties, these obstacles will eventually become impassable. We may then be tempted to give up entirely. Think of this in terms of riding a horse to a distant destination. If the horse throws us, the thought of remounting can be daunting. Do I really want to climb back on a creature who seems so resolutely opposed to the idea? What if he throws me again? I think I’ll walk. Anyone who has ridden horses knows the necessity of remounting right after a fall. Failing to do so, the rider runs the very real risk of never riding again. Likewise, failing to get back on our path when thrown by obstacles, we run the risk of abandoning our practice in this lifetime.
When our life is going well, complacency often emerges. We’re too busy enjoying our good fortune to think of all the things we need to do to increase it. And too happy to think of ending others’ suffering. When things are not going well, we can feel so overwhelmed by events that cultivating to attain a future goal seems irrelevant compared to surviving the day unscathed. But all circumstances are suitable for practice. For example, when in danger, we can cultivate a calm mind. In fearful times, we can practice giving others courage as well as letting go of our attachment to ego. When others are enraged, we can strive to engender patience to help diffuse the anger. When everything is going well, we can exercise humility and gratitude. While enjoying happy occasions, we can compassionately strive to help others find joy as well. And always, whether times are good or bad, we chant “Amituofo.”
Not knowing how much good fortune we have makes it difficult to determine whether we’re accumulating or depleting it. Financial institutions update us monthly. Many now provide phone apps that allow us to check on our balances round the clock. We can even request to be notified the instant anything changes. Wouldn’t it be convenient if the Good Fortune Bank could also notify us? Alert: you just helped someone; you now have X. Or, Alert: You obtained something you don’t need; your balance has decreased to Y. Without such updates, we have no idea how much good fortune we have spent or given up, how much we have added on. And so, we can’t know our balance in our account at the Good Fortune Bank. We don’t need to. But we can keep a mental tally, a daily score. As long as we achieve more selfless acts than selfish ones at the end of the day, we can be secure in the knowledge that our balance has increased.
Voicing our opinions isn’t difficult. Doing it all the time, we’ve mastered that skill. Voicing them at the right time is what we have pretty much failed to get a handle on. The right time occurs when others either ask us to do so or indicate in some way that our views will be welcomed. But if we voice our thoughts in a disrespectful, overwhelming manner, our invitation to speak freely may be quickly rescinded. Offering a viewpoint should be just that—an offering. We should extend our idea as respectfully as we proffer water and flowers to a Buddha. We don’t thrust flowers at a Buddha image or plunk them down and leave. We offer flowers in appreciation, grateful for the opportunity to be able to do so. We should offer our viewpoints in the same way, for the times that someone will want our opinion is rare.