Imagine you’re ambling through a quiet meadow on a lazy summer day with sunlight filtering through the trees. The birds are singing, and a breeze gently rustles the leaves overhead. Worries are forgotten, fears discarded. Nothing to do, save be at peace, at ease. To be at ease is to attain freedom from mental constraints. It is to be composed yet flexible, content yet happy, still yet aware, relaxed yet secure. We achieve ease when we stop avoiding everything that we deem unpleasant and when we stop grasping at everything that we believe will make us happy. It is the state we attain when we let go of wanting the world and everything in it to conform to our preferences and expectations. No longer struggling, moaning, railing, and whinging, we settle into quiet, contented happiness. This is just a taste of what we will experience permanently when we attain the supreme and perfect enlightenment of Buddhahood. This is a taste of “Great Ease.”
Knowledge comprises the facts and ideas acquired from external sources through experience, observation, and learning. Then there is that which already lies within, deep within our true nature. It is wisdom, our innate prajna. With prajna, we simply know. Imagine getting caught in a sudden downpour. We’d dash for cover—not stand in the pouring rain analyzing our various options. Prajna wisdom is this natural. Only much more serene. While knowledge comes to us from external sources, prajna arises from the tranquil mind. How? As our mind calms down, prajna bubbles up to the surface of our mind and functions. Initially, almost as soon as our bubble of wisdom arises, it bursts. But with continued meditation—for us, chanting the buddha-name—wisdom will arise more often and function longer. Eventually, wisdom will no longer recede. When we function continuously from our innate prajna, we will be awakened.
Just as everything that happens to us is a consequence of what we have thought, said, and done, so too what happens to others are the consequences of their respective karmas. And yet, knowing that cause and effect is a natural law unrestricted by time, we still long to ease others’ suffering. Not knowing whether we can, we try anyway. Our wish to assist is the embryonic stirring of our compassionate bodhi mind. But we need to bear in mind that we may well lack the necessary abilities and conditions to do so. Just as those we seek to help might well lack the conditions for us to ease their suffering. This likelihood of not being able to effect any change does not mean we do not try. We should. But upon failing to improve a situation, we need to let go of any disappointment. We need to readily accept that all we could do was try our best to ease another’s suffering.
Don’t gossip. Okay, that’s simple. Or is it? Is saying something nice about someone gossiping? Some people might say yes, others no. So how do we realize that what we are going to say isn’t gossip? One litmus test is to ask ourselves if we would say it in front of the person. Aside from exceptions like not discussing what we’ll be giving a child for his birthday in front of him, this guideline works well. If we are going to get upset or feel regret for speaking out, then we shouldn’t. If the other person might feel hurt or defensive or angry at what we say, then we shouldn’t. If there is even a remote chance of upsetting the other person in any way, then we shouldn’t say it. Notice a pattern? It’s “we shouldn’t.” Unless the person is going to thank us for what we are going to say, or smile happily with eyes twinkling, or feel the need to demur humbly, then we shouldn’t say it at all. So yes, it is simple after all.
Any gardener with bad habits will most likely find himself hard pressed to say which grows out of control faster: the weeds or his habits. Both are looming threats whose seeds were sown without us noticing anything. As they first appear, both weeds and habits seem so trifling, just pesky little annoyances, and hardly worth bothering about. No big deal, we tell ourselves. We can eliminate them another day. But as they develop, we realize that we need to do something before they multiply. We must not wait any longer! And yet, we still do nothing. Until one day, faster than we thought possible, those minor irritations have grown monstrously and taken over. And worse, like Medusa’s snakes, they are so intertwined, so complicated. And so menacing. Which end is which? Where to begin? Note to self: When such pests are spotted, pluck them out! Quickly!
We all have a unique combination of roots, habits, causes, and conditions. Knowing this, the Buddha compassionately taught 84,000 Dharma doors. If a person has good fortune, she will intuitively find the most suitable method for herself. Just as, hopefully, others too will be fortunate enough to be drawn to the method best suited them, based on their previously developed roots and current abilities. Having made our choices, we need to respect those of others. If one method was perfect for everyone, the Buddha would have taught just that one. He didn’t. Until we uncover a lot more of our wisdom and eliminate a lot more of our ignorance, we won’t know which method is most suitable for an individual. Attempting to convince someone to abandon his or her practice for ours runs the risk of leaving that person confused and frustrated. Perhaps, even enough to abandon Buddhism. Rather than provoke these, we need to accept—and respect—that person’s choice.
Myriad pleasurable things available to people with a bit of good fortune—people like us—are sought for the enjoyment that they can bring. Seeking such happiness seems so much more reasonable than trying to attain something referred to as “ultimate joy” or “ultimate bliss.” After all, we have experienced happiness to various degrees, so we know what it’s like. We don’t know what ultimate joy, much less ultimate bliss, feels like. So, giving up the known to seek the unknown seems risky. And yet, this exchange is precisely what the Buddha encouraged us to do. He knew that if we persevere, we will realize that everyday happiness cannot compare to the joy to be found in buddha-name chanting, when, for a moment, we are suddenly transported to a state of joy. This moment—incredibly serene while at the same time gloriously joyful—is all too brief. But it holds the promise of unending joy to come.
Someone taking advantage of us happens in one of two scenarios. In the first scenario, we owe the person. So being taken advantage of means we are reducing a karmic debt, perhaps even cancelling it. With lifetimes of creating debts, eliminating one is just a drop in the bucket. But if we can gladly repay it, we’ll do more than just settle a karmic score. This deeper understanding of karma is a sign of progress in our cultivation. And so, we know that repayment is a good thing. In the second scenario, we do not owe the person. In this instance, being taken advantage of means that the person now owes us. We now have a karmic credit. But someone owing us is possibly yet another enmity waiting to happen. Plus, the other person will now have yet another debt to repay. For both our sakes let’s forgive this person’s debt. So, karma-wise, being taken advantage of is actually a benefit.
When you suggest something to a person, pay heed to her response. Is she accepting it happily? Or unhappily? Perhaps she is offering an alternative or declining with an explanation. If you perceive a less than enthusiastic response, discuss other options with the person. This can prevent any potential frustration. But what if you aren’t listening earnestly? What if you’re still enamored with your proposed plan or idea. Hearing a reasoned “No thank you,” you still forge ahead, adjusting your original suggestion slightly. The person again demurs, further clarifying why she cannot accept. But yet again, in your obstinacy you tweak the plan once more and persevere in obtaining acceptance. The person, recognizing the railroad car of destiny barreling down the track, decides to accord with conditions and accepts. Gracefully, I might add. Maxim: Just as there is merit in offering, there is wisdom in accepting a “No thank you.”
Buddhism speaks of a cycle of three lifetimes. In the first, a person strives to be good. Having little, he gives whatever he can, soothes others’ fears and worries, and remains ever vigilant for ways to help. He thus amasses good fortune. In the second lifetime, due to all this good fortune, he becomes arrogant. After all, he has status, wealth, power. There’s much to be proud of. Caught up in personal indulgence, he ignores others’ suffering. Now, instead of watching for opportunities to help, he pursues opportunities to wield his power, to awe others, to control, and to create fear. To dominate. The more power he has, the more lives are affected. And destroyed. One with great power, for example a political leader, can affect the lives of millions of beings, even billions. In the third lifetime, having squandered his good fortune and created untold suffering, he plummets into the deepest of the hells. Such is the terrible fate of misusing our second lifetime.
Think of the mind as a pool of water. When the water is calm, we can see all the way to the bottom. With nothing to obstruct us, we can view everything clearly in its sparkling perfection. But when the water is disturbed, it stirs up the bottom mud. With so many particles swirling around, the water becomes cloudy, contaminated. When we need to decide how to respond to or resolve a situation, we need a clear mind. Chanting “Amituofo” allows us to calm our agitated mind. This is akin to the clearing of the water. Without further agitation, the particles will settle back to the bottom. When we get aggravated and highly agitated, perhaps in trying to figure out what to do, it is like plunging our hand into the water. When we frenziedly try one idea then another, it is like frantically poking here, blindly grasping there, wildly roiling calm waters. Don’t. Instead, sit quietly and allow the water—your thoughts—to settle. Doing so, your solution will shine forth.
When looking at those who have much good fortune, it is very easy to be envious. Or to deem it unfair when so many others have so little. It doesn’t help when the fortunate ones are obnoxious and egotistical. You wonder, why are they enjoying such wealth? Because they have planted the relevant seeds! In other words, they have earned their good fortune. In previous lifetimes, they were generous and thoughtful, not puffed up and pompous. Whether they had much or little, they gave their resources, time, and energy. Maybe they gave publicly, thinking it might inspire others to give. Maybe they gave anonymously, perhaps to avoid embarrassing the recipient. When giving, they did so with sincerity and respect. But look at some of them now. Selfish and arrogant, they are currently planting seeds for a harrowing future downfall. Learn from their example: humbly open your heart and your hands to help others. And don’t ever close them.
First, we don’t understand enough to fairly judge someone. To establish why she is acting as she does, we need to know her karmic trail, one that covers countless lifetimes. But that’s not all. Because everyone is connected, we also need to know the intertwining relationships of all those involved to piece together this massive karmic jigsaw puzzle. But, all these are beyond our current abilities! Which is okay actually because, second, it’s rarely our place, or responsibility, to judge others. A fact we tend to overlook most of the time. The only person whose actions we should judge is ourselves. Here too we won’t know how our past karmas will dictate a situation, but there are still things that we can discern. Our intentions. Our mindset. Our manner. We use the principles we learn in our Buddhist study as benchmarks against which we judge our own actions. Doing so should keep us quite busy. So much so that we no longer feel inclined to judge others’ actions.
Upon seeing an unscrupulous person experience misfortune, most of us would probably not consider it unfair. But it does seem unfair when someone who does everything we know to be right undergoes one misfortune after another. What happened to cause and effect? Well, nothing. We’ve just seen a sliver of the person’s actions in one lifetime; we have no idea how he behaved in others. He, and each of us, undergoes the just consequences incurred through past misdeeds. So his current misfortune is fair. But wait. What we also do not know is what would have happened if he hadn’t been so good in his present lifetime. Very possibly his difficulties would have proved far more severe: perhaps death or impoverishment instead of his broken leg or financial setback. Due to current selfless and ethical behavior, the severity of destined hardships will lessen as adverse karmic retributions ease in the face of our good ones.
Most of us spend a great deal of time and energy chasing what we believe will make us happy and evading what we fear will cause us suffering. But in fact, both chasing and evading cause suffering. In Buddhism, we learn that all phenomena—all things, events, and matters—are unreal, impermanent, and destined to end. Good times and favorable conditions are not real because they don’t last. Thankfully, the same applies to bad times and unfavorable conditions. We may understand the principle. But until we embrace the reality that nothing here in samsara continues forever, we will continue to suffer. If we accept that phenomena are always in flux and stop trying to force everything to conform to our wishes, we will stop struggling. Struggling causes the suffering. Acceptance eases the suffering. And patience ends it.
Visualize a man and a woman standing in a supermarket checkout line on a snowy winter day. The man, drinking coffee from his thermos, is buying frozen conventionally grown corn, frozen raspberries, dry beans, and day-old bread. The woman has organic corn-on-the-cob, mangoes, wild-caught salmon, still warm Ciabatta bread, and sips a latte from the coffee shop. Looking at the man’s shopping basket, she congratulates herself on her superior choices. But the man selected non-organic produce listed safe by the EWG, US-grown fruit frozen when fresh, inexpensive high protein food, and whole wheat bread baked one day ago. Plus his thermos held the fair-trade coffee that he brewed at home. The woman chose an out-of-season vegetable, imported fruit, expensive protein, white bread, and non-fair-trade coffee in a single-use cup. We need to pay attention to our own choices, not those of others.
In samsara, wealthy people have long adorned themselves with precious metals and gems. The more good fortune they have, the more wealth they acquire, the more gold, silver, etc., they amass. Gems, like lapis lazuli, and precious metals, including gold and silver, also exist in the Western Pure Land. But in that land, they are enjoyed by all beings, not just by a few. More importantly, in that land, the gems represent virtues. Arising from Amitabha Buddha’s mind and the minds of all the beings there, the virtues are so prolific that they manifest everywhere. Which virtues? Permanence, which occurs when beings use their pure mind. Joy, which arises from practicing and learning daily. True self, which is to control one’s thoughts and, thus, attain great freedom. And purity, the mind free of attachments. Why seek to possess physical gems for a few brief years, when in the Pure Land, we will permanently attain all that the gems represent.
When we, unawakened beings, recall an enjoyable experience, we often find ourselves musing about that moment of delight. And so we try to recapture that feeling by duplicating what happened. But we can’t. The conditions that caused it—people, places, objects, our thoughts—all came together for a brief instant. And in a flash, all those conditions changed because everything in samsara is in a state of constant flux. A new set of conditions may be similar, but never identical. Besides, even if they were, our expectations would add a new variable to that old equation. A moment of serendipity, because of what it is, can never be recreated. It’s just impossible. So rather than try to recreate the magical thermos of hot chocolate sipped delightfully on that long drive home, be grateful for the beverage you’re now savoring. If the old memory arises, observe it but don’t crave to repeat it. You can’t, and that’s fine.
When we have preconceived ideas, we set ourselves up for disappointment. The real world around us will never match our imaginary one, born of our remembrances and desires, that we carry within us. The most beautiful rose in the world will dishearten anyone who carries a preconceived image of it. On the other hand, sans anticipation, a simple violet is appreciated as an object of incredible beauty, our wonder and delight enhanced by our suddenly coming upon it. Not having to meet a preconceived standard, it achieves perfection simply by existing. If, somehow, we can let go of anticipation, we will be able to explore the world like young children investigating everything in their small worlds. Too young for preconceived ideas, for them everything is an eye-opener. And their delight is obvious. Without expectations, we too will be like that.
That cup of coffee in the morning to get us going, dinner at our favorite restaurant to celebrate good news, the weekend getaway to mark a difficult job we’ve just completed. Innocuous indulgences? Or something else? The coffee, special dinner, and getaway seem so harmless. And they can be if we do not become dependent on them. But if we feel we can’t function without the coffee, can’t relax after finishing a job without the usual dinner or weekend getaway, we’re in trouble. We are addicted without knowing it. When a little indulgence morphs into something we can’t function without, and when we feel incomplete because there is no reward for good news or a finished job well done, then we remain wanting. And we have officially slipped over the line. We’ve gone from enjoying something to feeling unable to function without it. We’ve upped the level of the reward to where, very soon, we’ll need more. We’ve entered our own little world of addiction.
We might well wonder how on earth we’re supposed to be near our teachers daily. Sure, up to the last century or so, people could have done this simply by spending all their lives in the same place. In the East, many temples and monasteries were within easy reach of residents. But today, there are fewer Buddhist centers and monastics, a situation even more dire in the West. Being near our teachers daily seems impossible. Let’s key in on “near them.” Not surprisingly, we assume that it means physical proximity—living in the same place as our teacher. But “near them” refers to a teacher’s teachings, not their physical presence. It’s the teachings we need to be near. And being near the teachings is to learn and live them daily. We could stand right next to a teacher all day long, but if we’re not learning from him, not following what he says, we’re not “near” him. We’re just taking up valuable space.
We all know the feeling. Someone we admire or trust says something, and it feels like she just slapped us. Caught completely off guard, we may utter something, but more likely we’ll be too dazed to talk. The moment passes, and the person moves on to another topic. Slowly we recover, but the pain remains. Years pass with no thoughts on it until something triggers the memory, and those words rise anew. And with them, searing pain. So what was said very long ago has the power to haunt us the rest of our life and even our lives yet to come. Distressing words etched in our memory can arise at the strangest, most seemingly unrelated situation. Had the person realized that her words, casually spoken, could cause us such pain and hound us endlessly, she wouldn’t have said them. She just wasn’t thinking. But we need to. And we can. We must.
Upon entering the cultivation hall of a Buddhist center for the first time, most of us naturally look around with a mixture of curiosity and respect. We try to follow what everyone else is doing. Hopefully, after attending for some time, we settle in and contentedly follow the established rules and procedures. Our focus is now on our practice, not on the protocol. But other people may, instead of according with the proceedings, begin wondering why things are done in a certain way. Another center does things differently. Why can’t things here be done like that? Why can’t I do what I want? With such thinking, we will be entering the hall with excess baggage—our attachments. A vital part of self-cultivation is letting go of personal preferences. One of them: when things work, but not in the way you’d like them to, it’s fine. So, when you leave your shoes at the door, remember to also leave your attachments.
After we have been cultivating for a while, we would expect to react better than previously in various situations. But what of the times when it feels like we don’t remember our manners? When we don’t do what we learned to in Buddhism? For example, shocked upon seeing a person’s unexpected decline in health, we fail to adapt to his new condition quickly enough to bring him a chair. Or a worrisome visit actually goes well. Relief gushes over us, but we fail to offer to help the person get to her next destination. One option is to imagine how a bodhisattva would react in the circumstance. Trying to emulate an awakened being, however, can be daunting. Much less intimidating is to envision how someone we know and admire would act. Repeatedly doing this should prepare us to react more thoughtfully in the future regardless of the circumstances.
How others act towards us is their choice, a decision that entails karmic results. We too have a choice. We could react automatically without considering the consequences. Initially, this may not seem like a choice, but it is—we are reacting from habit. Habits are formed by opting to do something and then doing it repeatedly. At any point, we can choose to change our behavior. For the most part we don’t. And so we end up defaulting to our usual action or response—one that’s been programmed over lifetimes. Instead of choosing to act from habits, a saner choice would be to first consider likely future consequences of an action. Sounds too complicated to do? Takes too much time when the action needs to be immediate? Consider this: the time we take to carefully consider how to react is infinitesimal compared to the time we will spend suffering the results of acting rashly.
Although we may think we understand cause and effect, we really don’t. Or at least not fully. Karmas, or causes, are good, bad, or neutral actions. Neutral means the activity is neither good nor bad morally. These karmas don’t pose any problems because they don’t carry painful retributions. Good karmas have consequences, but they’re good ones. No problem here, other than the fact that we don’t create enough of them. Clearly, our problem is bad karmas. Then why do we keep committing them when we know they result in suffering? One reason might be that we don’t grasp the inclusiveness of karma. Cause and effect concerns everything, not only major actions. Cause and effect concerns things done everywhere, all the time. It does not switch on and off. Yes, we need to pay attention to major karmas, but our minor daily actions have consequences too. And unfortunately, if bad, or fortunately, if good, they all add up. All the time. Every time.
Worries arise from fear—fear that things will remain the same and fear that they will change. For some of us worry becomes a habit, for others a learned behavior. And there are those for whom it seems almost physical—a mutation in their DNA that results in them being hardwired for worry. Whatever the underlying reason, worrying is pointless, a waste of time and energy. If through individual or shared karma, we have set events into motion, worrying won’t prevent them from occurring. And if we haven’t set things into motion, nothing is going to happen. So there’s no need to worry. Worries are wandering thoughts. We stop worrying by eliminating fear. Fear arises because we stubbornly attach to our existence. Daily learning and practice will help us let go of attachments and contentedly accept what is and will be.
Criticism can hurt. Unless offered helpfully, either in delivery or by the right person, it’s very easy for us to feel offended or even under attack. Perhaps it’s a case of being sharply censured in front of others, a distressing face-losing moment. Or perhaps the critique is unfair, in which case it’s not surprising to cry foul. After having taken the time to put forth the effort to complete a task correctly, here is someone claiming we did it incorrectly. But what if the criticism is valid. If so, we will feel embarrassed, red-faced over having done something badly and not knowing it. Or, aware that we did it poorly, we didn’t know how to fix the mistakes and didn’t ask for help. Or even worse, knowing that there were mistakes, we didn’t bother to correct them. Next time, instead of feeling hurt from criticisms, view them as opportunities to cultivate patience and diligence.
Discerning when and how to criticize someone remains a skill few of us have managed to master. Let’s face it, we haven’t even grasped the more basic issue of who we should—and can—criticize. We seem to think it’s wide open. Anyone who stumbles into our crosshairs—acting in a manner we wouldn’t—is subject to the critical remarks bubbling up within us. Unless we can catch ourselves, our words will spew forth. Wonderful. As if we need another karmic enmity. So whom do we criticize? Those we are responsible for, like our children or subordinates at work. Those we have a good affinity with and who are open to our suggestions like some family members, friends, and close co-workers. Those we love and respect, who love and respect us. If there is a good affinity and we feel someone will welcome our opinions, we offer them. For those who have a lesser or no affinity with us, we guide by setting examples. And keep our opinions to ourselves.
Yesterday we learned about the people who we could rightly offer critical remarks to—those we have a good affinity with. Next, how do we critique them? In the way that we would want them to critique us. One consideration is a matter of when and where: try hard to not correct someone in front of others or when you’re upset. Another factor is one of approach. Instead of bluntly criticizing them, phrase the comments in terms that the person is more likely to accept. Don’t say the person is wrong, just that you believe what he did was. Then explain why and what might have been done instead. Have a respectful conversation, don’t give a lecture. As the Buddha is said to have advised: “If you know anything that is hurtful and untrue, don’t say it. If you know anything that is helpful but untrue, don’t say it. If you know anything that is hurtful but true, don’t say it. If you know anything that is helpful and true, find the right time.”
I don’t see how the project will work. I don’t get why they’re doing it. I just don’t understand. We’ve all been there. We hear about what others are doing and just can’t see how the proposed project will work, or even why it’s needed. Suddenly they invite us to participate, and so we look into the proposal. Upon checking things out, we ponder this bewildering project and shake our head. At this point, we have some options. We can keep retracing our steps to try to figure things out. Or we can politely decline the invitation to participate and get back to meeting our responsibilities—things and projects we understand and are happy to have taken on. The first option will result in further frustration and wasted energy. The second option—letting go—enables us to reduce our frustrated thoughts. We wish success to those undertaking the new project. At the same time, we rededicate ourselves to the work we are qualified for and committed to doing.