Having a habit, to me, is like striding along a familiar path, perhaps on the way to the market or in the park. Having taken this path many times, we feel confident when on it again. Paying no heed to what’s happening, we just keep moving, our mind on other things. Acting from habits is very similar. Having done something repeatedly, we proceed without thinking, convinced that what we’re doing is just fine. In reality, this approach hasn’t really worked all that well for us. Hopefully, the day will come when we look around and realize that we have been making mistakes. And so we attempt to make corrections. But doing things differently is not easy. And so we flounder, blundering first in one direction and then in another in our attempts to act more mindfully. As long as we remain patient with the process and we persevere, we will form new—and better—habits. We’ll reach the point where our actions once more are confident. And correct.
We’re in the grocery store, pushing our shopping cart around the end of the aisle when we suddenly come face to face with another person doing the same thing. Narrowly avoiding a collision, we both smile, murmur “Sorry!” and good-naturedly negotiate around each other. See how easy it is? When we’re not captivated by thoughts of self-importance, we can freely act like civil human beings. Why can’t this happen all the time? Is it because apologizing to someone who is less influential or wealthy would be demeaning? And so Mr. All-important doesn’t consider it necessary to apologize, for anything. How sad. Too often, people prance around with inflated egos due to their current good fortune, which they incorrectly credit to being more clever than others. No one is so important that he doesn’t need to apologize for uncivil behavior. Better to say “I’m sorry” now than be sorry in the future when our past arrogance and misdeeds catch up with us.
Having written, edited, re-written, and finally filmed a lecture on Buddhism’s three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance, I faced the toughest part of producing a Dharma talk: coming up with a title. While I was lamenting my problem and struggling with possible options, another nun looked over and asked me what the talk was about. “The three poisons,” I replied. She whipped back, “Have greed and anger? You’re ignorant!” Wow. I wished I had come up with that. Regrettably, I couldn’t use her idea. (It was a bit too forthright.) But she was so right. If we indulge in greed and succumb to anger, it’s due to our ignorance, our failure to deeply comprehend cause and effect. All that we’ll end up with from giving in to the three poisons will be disappointment and regret. The three are a package deal: due to ignorance, we crave, and when this is unfulfilled, we get angry. This is one deal we can live without.
Much of our energy seems directed at trying to get others to comply with our wishes. We plan and rehearse what we’ll say. Or, utterly frustrated, we just blurt out what it is we want. Upon seeing the other person’s reaction, we frantically devise Plan B. Whatever our scheme, the goal is to get someone to stop doing something their way and start doing it ours. Not surprisingly, our desired effect invariably remains just that—a desire. Whatever our strategy. What we’re trying to do is change conditions, but they’re not amenable to a quick fix. A good understanding of causality is necessary to know the correct method to alter them. For now, we need to stop fussing over the barking dog, our midnight music-playing neighbor, the world’s laziest co-worker and stop allowing them to irritate us. Yes, they are annoying. No, they are not life-threatening. So, let’s not view them as torture but as tools for our practice of patience.
We’ve been advised to view the world as a hotel that we are visiting for a mere few days. Since our time here is so brief, there’s no point in getting attached to the place. It’s not our home; it doesn’t belong to us. During our visit, we treat the facilities with respect—we keep our rooms clean, use only what we need, don’t bother the other guests, and make sure we leave everything in as good a condition as when we got here, or even better. Since we’re just visiting, we won’t be taking anything with us because whatever we encounter will remain behind when we leave. If one of the other visitors needs help, we do whatever we can. But we don’t get attached. And we don’t have expectations for the lives of those we help because, being such short-term visitors, we have little time to make much of an impact. Our plan is that in the future, once we get to our real home, we’ll come back often to truly help all those who are still staying at this hotel.
With infinite patience and compassion, and in fulfillment of their vows to help all beings, Buddhas and bodhisattvas await the opportunity to help us. So we wonder, why don’t they just come? Okay, let’s say they do. If they come to us looking like a Buddha, we’d be too in awe to listen to them. After we finally stop gaping and actually pay attention to what they teach about suffering and its end, what then? Very likely, we’d still be too attached to our current existence to let it all go. We’ll make excuses. To practice the teachings to end our suffering—that’s a big leap! We’re just ordinary people. And what if they come in the guise of an ordinary person? We’d just waive off their advice—hey, they don’t look like Buddhas. Like children, we’ll be too self-absorbed to listen to advice, too stubborn to ask for help, too self-indulgent to want to change. Little wonder that it’s so difficult for awakened beings to come to help us.
Remember the time you were so absorbed in what you were doing that you forgot about the time? Now think of your last chanting session. Did time pass as quickly? In the first example, you were doing something you really enjoyed. In the chanting example, it was something you knew you should do, and even wanted to, but focus was simply elusive. Goodness, all those wandering thoughts! What to do? Chanting can be like driving on a country road or a superhighway. If it’s like the former, we drive along enjoying the scenery, stop to visit the town we’re passing through, get a bite to eat, check out the park, and amble back to our car. Enjoyable, but it’s going to take a long time to reach our destination. Taking the superhighway, we don’t stop to see all the various sights because that would require us to get off the highway. There’s no time for that. We need to focus on our driving, on “Amituofo,” because we want to get to our destination ASAP.
To learn how to ride a bike, we had to lift our feet off the ground, place them on the pedals, and then frantically steer the handlebars once our father let go of the bike. We too had to let go—of our fear of crashing. Learning to swim, we had to let go the side of the pool. Going to college, we had to leave home and go live with a bunch of strangers. Becoming a bike rider, a swimmer, a college student required us to leave what we knew and who we were, and sally forth into the unknown. Essentially, to arrive at a new place we had to leave a familiar one. Our venturing forth wasn’t easy. But venture forth we did. Why? We were enthralled by the possibility of what we could become. Working to achieve our dreams took courage and imagination. And determination. We deemed the freedom to be gained every time we succeed to be worth the effort. But some day, we’ll realize that they were nothing compared to the freedom we will gain venturing forth to awakening.
As beings trying to awaken, we strive to be patient, accepting, and caring. Along with many other qualities, all of which are equally invaluable. And equally difficult to do. If we are fortunate, we will know others who, like us, are working to improve themselves. Like us, they often fail. Like us, they speak without thinking. And just like ours, their careless words hurt. But don’t let them. Let go the heedless words. Instead, love and care about others. Odds are they’ve spoken hurtful words many times. The sad reality here in samsara is that, caught up in an emotional moment, we too often respond with harsh words. Chaotic thoughts careen through our minds, and we cannot catch our words fast enough before they are uttered. Others do the same thing. So why should we get upset over what they heedlessly said? They probably didn’t think about what they were saying. And would be very grateful if we didn’t think of them either.
We hear it often: “Let go.” Of what? Everything. Our personal views. Our likes and aversions. Our greed, anger ignorance, and arrogance. And in time, our body. Maybe, having already let go of a few attachments, we realize that we do indeed feel less burdened. But letting go is proving to be a real struggle. Not yet a habit, it is neither natural nor easy. But with practice, it can be. This is vital because if we have trouble letting go now, imagine what we’ll be going through at the end of our life. The more we practice something, the more proficient we become. We need to keep reminding ourselves that letting go is not depriving ourselves. It’s knowing what’s really important. Attachments and fleeting pleasures? Or the attainment of infinite wondrous benefits? Practice letting go now. So when Amitabha comes to guide us to the Pure Land we do not hesitate, for we will already know how to let go.
One of Samantabhadra’s ten great vows is to rejoice at others’ meritorious deeds. While these vows are a high-level practice undertaken by bodhisattvas, we can still begin to incorporate them into our practice. This vow of being happy at others’ good actions helps us counter jealousy. Upon seeing others accomplishing something we dream about, we often succumb to jealousy. We mutter to ourselves “Why them?” Because they have planted the right seeds and the right conditions have matured. “Why not me?” Because either we didn’t plant the seeds, or our conditions haven’t matured yet. “Okay. But do I have to feel happy for them?” Yes, because they did something good. (That’s the “meritorious” bit.) Accomplishing something good is rarely easy. The right seeds and conditions need to mature—at the same time. So let’s get over our lethargy and our pouting. Celebrate those who manage to shine for they deserve our heartfelt delight and applause.
Theory is one thing, application another. Application invariably benefits significantly from study. But study devoid of application usually results in merely obtaining technical knowledge. Not in accomplishment. A student who fails to apply what he learns is merely repeating the words of others. Without putting words into action, there is simply no “music.” Even worse, without practice, we will miss the whole point of the learning—to master the skill, or at least attain some degree of proficiency in it. Studying Buddhism works the same way. By failing to apply the teachings on meditation, we remain distracted and unfocused in our thinking. Failing to apply the principles behind cultivation, we remain stuck in our bad habits and self-absorption. Like the person who never touches the keyboard, we too will miss any wonderful outcome. In our case, the unsurpassed joy of awakening.
A crucial objective in cultivation is to discover our faults, feel remorse, correct them, and then continue practicing. One risk in this process is to go through it quickly and without much thought. Call it a cursory correction. Alternatively, another risk we run is getting mired in the process and being overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. We need to move mindfully through each step, neither progressing so quickly that we don’t really learn from our mistakes nor so slowly that we find ourselves trapped in guilt, unable to practice. Repeatedly replaying what we did saps us of our energy, leaving little for our desired improvement. Acknowledging that so much of what we do is a continuation of karmic threads can help here. And also to realize that we need to stop adding to the karmic chain. How? By chanting “Amituofo” and dedicating the merits to all those we hurt. And expending our energy thus saved on self-cultivation.
After being warned by their parents not to touch a hot stove, some children may ignore the advice. But when the hand gets closer to a burner, the parent will be seen as wise. Hopefully, this will be enough for a doubting child to heed future parental warnings. Other children may just trust the parent and do not need to test their advice. Now grown up, we face advice from diverse sources. But the issue of trustworthiness still remains. Even in regards to the Buddha. Many of his teachings we can test. Having learned that our karmas have results, we act mindfully and find that we face fewer problems. Letting go of expectations, we have fewer disappointments. Not giving in to anger, we are less disturbed. Overall, we’re happier. What about the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Joy? There’s no hot-stove test for doubters of this place. At some point, one trusts a good teacher, someone who has diagnosed myriad problems and prescribed all the right treatments.
In the thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment, diligence appears four times. Why so often? Because diligence is crucial to our accomplishing pretty much everything worthwhile. Unless we have already planted abundant seeds to attain something, we need to get busy. But getting busy is the difficult part. We find it much easier to do something enjoyable than to do something we regard as work. An example? Observing the efforts of others rather than doing something ourselves. Most of us make excuses to just coast. Inertia is king. Any exceptions? Yes. We get energized with things that matter to us: our loved ones, an avocation, our principles. We need to move our Buddhist practice to this exception list. And then move it to the top of the list! Because in samsara, freeing ourselves from momentary indulgence and inertia will prove to be the ultimate enjoyment.
Nothing makes a dung beetle’s day like a lump of feces. Whether they roll it into a round ball, bury it, or inhabit it where they find it, the dung beetle lives and breathes dung. It’s their nursery, their source of food and water, their home. They might even attach themselves to the animal source and wait for the inevitable. Without dung, they are lost. And so they are apt to steal a dung ball, sometimes under the guise of helping another beetle. From birth to death, their existence centers on dung, on something we deem repulsive. What a miserable way to live we tell ourselves, as we grimace in disgust. And with that, we return to our own existence and the things that make our day. We eat and drink. We raise our children and tend to our home. We interact with others to attain more of what we want, perhaps even through dishonorable means. As human beings, we consider ourselves fortunate. As do the beetles. Both, however, are inordinately mistaken.
When others strongly want something, we should practice patience. How? Defer to them. If it’s not an issue of, say, principles or safety, why not? Will it really make a difference to us to let the aggressive driver into our lane? Yes, he’s annoying. But no, it shouldn’t make a difference. Who is to say whose journey is more important. Or urgent. And does this honestly matter? Is it worth the price we pay? The anger we feel? There’s also the embarrassment of hearing ourselves proclaim “I won!” when we exit the road and the car is still behind us. As our blood pressure normalizes, a realization befalls us: we just created another enmity. As if we didn’t already have enough. The next time your wishes do not concur with someone else’s, remember that we are not more important than others. Any tug-of-war on this issue is not important. Only patience is. Very likely, you will see how patiently accommodating the other person will make everyone a winner.
Being able to do something does not necessarily mean we should. Walking down the street, do I heedlessly drop a piece of paper on the ground? Carry it to the nearest trash bin? Take it home to add to the recycling bag? Dining with friends, do I order the meat like everyone else? Do I order a vegetarian option? A vegan one? Do I say I just feel like tofu tonight? Say it’s for health reasons? Do I explain that I don’t need, or want, to take another’s life to support my own? Sure, I can toss the paper aside. Yes, I can order whatever I want on the menu. But does being able to do something mean that I should? That I don’t need to care about small things like a piece of paper or one serving of meat? Or do I have a responsibility to those my decisions impact? And also, not coincidentally, my own future karma? When with others, do I act the same way they do? Or do I decide to take the more arduous path of making conscious decisions on increasing subtle levels?
Unless we’re absorbed in our thoughts, we tend to mirror others’ reactions. Say someone looks at us and smiles. Normally, we would return the smile. Normally. Last week in a restaurant, a person in my line of sight looked at me. No smiles. Glared is a harsh word, so let’s just say he stared. While I usually would have smiled, it had been a tiring morning, and my energy was running low. So I just looked back. No smile from me either. We both resumed eating our own lunches, and I thought “Well darn. I just blew my chance to form a Dharma affinity.” Fortunately, on the way out, his companion stopped by our table and asked what I was having (it was a vegan burger). She then explained that she was newly vegan. We ended up talking, and even her friend became friendly. So the opportunity wasn’t lost after all. But because I had allowed myself to be affected by another person, I came perilously close to losing the opportunity to form a Dharma affinity.
We’re all prisoners, all confined to life in a cell. Some cells feel spacious and luxurious with walls of sparkling glass so clear we’re not even aware of their presence. Others are cramped and barren with rusting, impregnable bars cold to the touch that, for all their decrepitude, powerfully encircle us. Our guards and fellow inmates may be attentive and understanding, eager to lessen our suffering. Or they may be mean-spirited and vengeful, intent on making us pay for our offenses, real or perceived. But whatever our current cell’s conditions, once we leave our cell, it will only be to enter another one. The way to escape? When alone or with others, look around our cell and the surrounding ones and determine all the ways we can think, speak, and behave honorably and selflessly. And then do so. This will make us more at ease in our current cell. In the future, we will leave all the cells behind, leave samsara.
Dropping a box of clothes off at Goodwill or St. Vincent’s, buying some cans and packages of food to put into the food bank bin at the grocery store, writing a check to our town’s animal shelter, donating online after a disaster—all are quick and easy. Taking the time to help someone is an entirely different matter. Most of us don’t have an endless supply of time and energy. (At least not yet. We will when we become Buddhas.) So committing to help—and then actually doing so—can feel daunting. Easy or otherwise, the wise person gives to others, especially when it’s daunting. Especially of themselves. An object or some money is one thing. Our energy is another. That’s personal! And that’s what makes it so special. Giving of ourselves is selfless. But we’re more used to selfish. Giving selfishly locks up our heart. Giving selflessly flings open the doors of our heart and enables us to step outside of ourselves. Where fresh air awaits.
The response depends on how far along we are on the path. Let’s say it’s early days. We’re just getting a handle on rebirth and all those different paths including the hells and hungry ghosts. Then there’s causality, pervasive and timeless. What karmas have we sown, we wonder. We also realize that suffering could be just one step away, lurking behind current happiness. It should come then as no surprise that, at first, we learn Buddhism to benefit ourselves. Who wouldn’t want to end their suffering and improve their future lifetimes! As time passes, and with further cultivation and learning, we begin to look anew at those vows of helping others that we read of. Yes, it’s not only about helping ourselves! We help ourselves so that we can help others. That’s our ultimate goal. And if we don’t know how to help ourselves we certainly won’t be able to help others. So, don’t worry. Yes, we start with “ourselves.” In time, we graduate to “others.”
It’s exhausting! All that time and energy we expend on fussing about the daily annoyances we encounter. It’s just too much and all a big waste. We know this. And yet here we are, still grumbling. Why do I keep having to fix his mistakes? Won’t she ever learn? Do they think their time is more valuable than mine? It becomes a contest between which is more tiring. Fixing the mess? Or fussing about it? Upon consideration, it’s really not much of a contest. Fussing wins, hands down. But it doesn’t accomplish anything. Point 1: We can whinge all we want, but we still have to fix what the other person messed up. Oops! Let’s make that “We still need to fix what the person needs help with.” Point 2: That correcting will take longer because when we’re fussing, we’re not doing the task. Just wasting time and energy. We should just tell ourselves that in the past we must have driven a co-worker crazy. If we see it as retribution, our now focused mind can calmly complete the work.
If we keep giving a shaded view of something that happened, people will learn to discount, and eventually ignore, what we say. Especially if we cast ourselves in the starring role. Remember the hapless boy who cried wolf when there wasn’t one in sight? In time, the villagers learned not to believe him. He was left to fend for himself (and we know how well that turned out) when a wolf actually turned up. The villagers came to ignore his cries of “WOLF!” because experience told them that the boy saw telling the truth as unimportant. He wasn’t trustworthy. He wasn’t believable. In the same way, if we keep skewing our reporting while others know the reality, it’s only a matter of time until people listen to us with a healthy dose of skepticism. How can they trust us when we seem incapable of reporting an event honestly and relating it properly? Others may deem us to be a nice person, but discountable at the same time. Is this how we want others to perceive us?
In Buddhism, we hear about turning afflictions into bodhi. In effect, it is transforming negative thoughts into awakened ones. How? We stop viewing a situation as trying and see it in a favorable light. For example, we change “that yapping dog is driving me crazy!” to “that dog is helping me develop patience.” Now I can assure you from personal experience that it’s much easier to type the previous sentence than do it. The dog really is annoying, and I’m trying to write. So, how can I transform here? Well, for one thing, my patience can always stand some work. And since it can only be practiced in adverse conditions, a yapping dog is a winner. So, thank you, dog! Noisy as you are, you are helping me out. Thinking about 365 topics to write is challenging. Using this barking dog is an example of about turning afflictions into Bodhi, of changing a negative thought into one that benefits others. And more patience always helps.
Let’s consider self-discipline from two aspects. First, everyday self-discipline will help us accomplish what we want to with less frustration and disappointment. It’s a tool we can use when we don’t feel like doing something and want to put it off. Again. With self-discipline, we take ourselves by the proverbial lapels, look ourselves in the eye, and say “Nope. You’ll do it now.” Once we accomplish what we have to do, we will feel good. Second, moral self-discipline will help us navigate through the mire of situations and relationships we encounter on a daily basis. By having a moral compass—for example, the precepts of no killing, no stealing, and no false speech—we will have the means to check our bearings to make sure we’re headed in the right direction. That we’re not getting lead astray again by our bad habits. Getting quickly back on track will mean we’ll arrive at our destination sooner. And with less pain.
Maybe it’s “Gee, I was clever to do that!” Or perhaps, “Oh no, what was I thinking?” Probably both as we swing from congratulating ourselves one day to being overwhelmed with regret the next. Life spent on an emotional seesaw from recalling what we did can feel exhilarating. Or depressing. Either way, it’s exhausting. And fruitless. Thoughts of things we accomplished can lead to arrogance. Thoughts of what we failed at can lead to feelings of inadequacy. Both, and pretty much everything in between, are not helpful because they’re in the past, and we can’t fix what’s in the past. All we can do is learn to live with it. Ultimately, when we focus on what we did in the past, we’re looking in the wrong direction. We need to consider our options and focus on what we can do now because now is all we have. And because now is where we still have choices, still have the potential to decide on those that are truly wise and wondrous.
It feels good to be praised. Many people may feel grateful that they didn’t mess up again. Arrogant people may think how perceptive others are to recognize quality when they see it. Wise people may politely murmur “Amituofo” and carry on with what they were doing. Hopefully, we’re like those wise people because they understand the pitfalls of praise. Compliments are the karmic result for actions done. But they are actually poor returns because wise people aspire to accrue merits, which are permanent, not something transient like compliments. Understanding this, our question regarding praise becomes not how we can receive it but, rather, how we can act in a manner that would be worthy of praise. And not just from anybody, but from those we respect. Not so they will praise us. But because their high standards are the benchmarks we use to judge ourselves.
Since our cultivation relies on us correcting our faults, anyone would think we’d be happy, delighted even, to have our faults pointed out by others. After all, they’re helping us progress in our practice. In reality, no one likes being corrected. Criticism will elicit a range of reactions from us. Embarrassment. Guilt. Defensiveness. But rarely gratitude. Which is a shame really. Most of us have a stockpile of faults and noticing them isn’t something we readily do. But we need to stop committing faults. It’s the only way we can quit suffering from the negative consequences of our actions, thoughts, and speech. To progress. A moment of chagrin or umbrage can be brushed aside. The more we do it, the easier it will get. And let’s face it, sometimes a verbal slap in the face can be extraordinarily effective. Enough so that we know we’ll never do THAT again.
Most of us would like to help others, to make a difference in their lives. Some may choose careers of service. Committed to a cause, others may support it financially. Or dedicate their free time to volunteer work. The more we care, the more we want to do. Seeking to make a difference in the world, we consider the big picture. But not everyone has the conditions to act at this level. And even those who can would do well to also look at the “small” picture because even the most minor action can impact others. Indeed, the degree of the impact is relative to the sincerity accompanying the action. A polite “thank you” is always appreciated. But when that “thank you” is accompanied by a smile that carries up to the person’s eyes, and you feel the smiling person is genuinely thinking of you at that moment, it can carry us for quite some time. So it’s not the magnitude of the action that makes a difference—it’s the sincerity.