Work. Family. Community. Scrambling to meet multiple duties and accomplish our goals, from places to be at to plans to be made, we’re so often in a hurry. We hear of the counter-productivity of multitasking. But we continue writing that text on our smartphones while mentally noting what we need from the grocery store on the way home. Much of the time, most of us are so busy doing and going in hopes of arriving, that we don’t stop to consider the direction we’re heading. Maybe we chose it due to others’ expectations. Maybe we’re just following the crowd. Whatever the reason, we’re on the move. But take a minute to reflect. Where are we going? And when we finally arrive, will we look back with bewilderment? Regret? Or a sense of a life well-lived? A life where we didn’t aimlessly rush off, following the crowd. Rather, a life where we made sure we were headed in the right direction.
Looking back fondly, starting the new school year meant getting new supplies. A big decision was—the notebook. What size? Color? Two-hole? Three? How many dividers? Such decisions were crucial because some serious note-taking was about to be undertaken. Older now, notes are possibly even more important. Increasingly, what we want to learn or to remember needs to be written down. And so, at a Dharma lecture, we whip out pen and paper, determined to take copious notes. But the first thing we hear is, “Don’t take notes.” No notes? Seriously? How will I remember what he is going to say? Relax. For one thing, when we’re writing, we’re not listening. But when we concentrate on what is being said, we will hear what we need to hear. For we’ll be ready to hear it. Keep attending the talks or listening to the recordings. But leave the notebooks at home. Each time, our understanding will deepen and solidify. And each time we listen, we will absorb what we need.
Asking our teacher for help in trying to figure out what we should do will often solicit advice to chant the buddha-name. The reason is that the chanting will help our mind become tranquil. This will allow the answer to be perceived, just as a calm pool of water, no longer agitated, will reveal the sand at the pool’s bottom. Why doesn’t the teacher just tell us what to do? First, her role is to teach principles, not to decide for others how to live their lives. Second, she doesn’t need to tell us. We already know what to do. We just haven’t realized it. At least not clearly. An inkling is there. The right action becomes more obvious when our appeal for help begins with “Is it wrong to …?” If we’re wondering if something is wrong, it’s because we’re uneasy. Something about this action doesn’t feel right. We feel it in our gut. And so we need to ask ourselves whether what we’re considering is something we could live with, be at ease with. If not, perhaps we should give it a pass.
Usually, when someone who knows us selects something we enjoy, we happily use it. It’s only good manners! The fact that we like the high mountain tea or those luscious dark chocolates has nothing to do with it. We’re just being polite. Honestly! But what if we don’t consume our gifts. What if, in turn, we give the tea to a tea lover. This rare blend would have him gleeful for quite a while. Or give the chocolates to someone who wouldn’t think of splurging on herself. If we drink the tea and eat the chocolates, they’ll soon be gone. Especially those chocolates. At times, we might recall the wonderful aromas and tastes. This could smack of attachments. But imagine our joy when years later the aroma from a cup of tea handed to us triggers the memory of how much our good friend enjoyed his tea. Our own personal pleasure is immaterial. The happiness of others is what truly matters.
Self-cultivation is about the quiet things, the inner work we undertake. It’s being humble not only when we fail, but also when we finally accomplish a difficult task and accolades come in. It’s remaining quiet when we’re tempted to babble, knowing that our speaking would disturb others. And very honestly, it isn’t really necessary. Like the other qualities we cultivate, humility and quietude could appear as weaknesses, especially by those who are less aware. They are more used to seeing strength exhibited by a show of power and self-control displayed in sheer physical prowess. To those who master them, they are anything but. Our ability to remain free from arrogance or pride and our realization that the wisest action may well be to remain silent can bring incredible peace of mind. A source of stability and contentment, humility and quietude are therefore strengths.
Those of us who have tried to calm our mind with chanting have very likely experienced the barrage of thoughts streaming through. To make matters worse, most of those thoughts were neither loving nor compassionate. They did not arise from gratitude or contentment. No, they’re triggered by destructive habits like worry, anger, jealousy, fear, and frustration. At times in our chanting, we become aware of such harmful thoughts. But what about when we’re doing everyday tasks? In our daily, harried state of mental overload and physical activity, we fail to detect what’s happening. Fail to notice all the damaging seeds we keep planting in our store consciousness. What’s a person to do? Listen to the Dharma! Every single second that our mind is engrossed in the Dharma, untold numbers of detrimental thoughts are averted and their perilous seeds never sown.
We’ve just heard that someone we know is ill. An old superstition warns us to “knock on wood” or something similar to avoid tempting fate and finding ourselves in like circumstances. We don’t really believe the superstition; it’s just a saying we grew up with. But as the saying whips through our mind, we need to watch what comes next. Is it gratitude for our good fortune? Are we recognizing that our mental and physical well-being have resulted from our having given fearlessness? Realizing the wisdom in giving, are we inculcating it in our practice? Or are we, instead, patting ourselves on the back, attributing our good health to our nutritious diet, regular exercise, and healthy lifestyle. The moment we slip into congratulating ourselves, we heedlessly walk away from safely dwelling in gratitude and land in the enemy camp of arrogance. Not where we want to be.
Having lived countless lifetimes since time without beginning, we have committed an untold number of harmful actions. Fortunately, we have also performed many that were honorable. Which karmic seeds from these will mature depends on our conditions. In some lifetimes, luck seems to find us; in others, we seem to encounter one misfortune after another. Feeling pain due to physical disorders or mental distress are our karmic consequences. We caused others pain, and so now we face pain ourselves. That explains how we got to this point. What do we do now? If today, we say or do something that hurts another, we can realize what we did and apologize. We can say we’re sorry right away. But how do we apologize to those we harmed in past lifetimes? We don’t know who they are or what we did. And how do we even find them? Very simply, we cannot. But that does not mean we cannot apologize. We can. And we do so through the moving offering of repentance.
To express our heartfelt regret at having caused others pain, we intone aloud or silently:
All evil actions committed by me since time immemorial; stemming from greed, anger, and ignorance;
arising from body, speech, and mind;
I deeply repent having committed.
To deepen our regret for all the harm we have done, we can also do prostrations. If we are sincere enough, we will touch those we have harmed—wherever they now are. And begin to apologize for our past selfish and, too often, cruel actions toward them. By sincerely repenting the harm we have done and the pain we have caused, we are also committing ourselves to doing better from now on. Repenting has the power to liberate. It is the “I’m so very sorry” that we want to say to the one we hurt or disappointed, but can no longer. It is an offering of healing. For ourselves, yes, but ultimately, and more importantly, for others.
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.
At some point in our practice of Buddhism, we will want to work on developing our bodhi mind, the mind of understanding and compassion. How? We can practice the bodhisattvas’ six paramitas of giving, morality, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and prajna wisdom. Wow! Where do we even begin? An excellent place is the sutras and their commentaries. Or we can study the more recent, and often easier to understand, works of Buddhist masters and teachers. Prefer even more modest sources? We can observe and then emulate those who already practice the paramitas. Alternatively, we can come at this from the opposite direction and observe those who are behaving contrary to the paramitas. While these bad examples won’t show us what to do, they can teach us what not to do. And they can inspire us to work much harder because they show us the kind of person we can become when we fail to practice.
A selfish person puts his own desires and his own interests before those of others. This includes his own suffering. Self-absorbed, he often doesn’t notice the situation of others. Or even if he notices, concerns of others just fly by him. Perhaps he’s too busy with personal matters to help someone else. Too frustrated with an issue unfolding at work that it doesn’t occur to him to smile at the waitperson who looks in need of a little kindness. So engrossed in increasing his net worth that he can’t bear to give any of it away. So arrogant too. He thinks that others are just plain lazy, unlike him, who worked so darn hard to get to where he is. Whatever the reason, the door to his heart is firmly closed. What a sad way to live—suspicious, grasping, fearful. Observing this person, we can throw open the door to our heart and be the very opposite. Be trusting, generous, courageous. We can be more like a bodhisattva.
An unrestrained person pursues her own preferences and attachments. If these coincide with the established guidelines and rules for good behavior, it’s good news. Or she can go her own way, believing that it’s no big deal. She justifies her behavior with all sorts of reasons and always placing her happiness before that of others. Wrapped up in her own world, she doesn’t notice the discomfort she’s causing others. If criticized for her behavior, she might lash out in embarrassment or frustration. She might even get into difficulties legally. For all the suffering that she leaves in her karmic trail, she will undoubtedly be in trouble in the future. This is not someone we want to emulate. We don’t want to distress others. Or become argumentative or sullen when corrected. We want to live a principled life and not have any worries about our behavior. We want to plant seeds for happiness, not suffering.
Demanding people are rarely satisfied. Situations seldom meet their expectations, relationships are often unfulfilling, completed projects fail to meet their standards, everything takes too long. Demanding perfection of themselves and everything around them, they often find they’re too hot, too cold, too hungry, too full, too early, too late. Basically, little meets their exacting standards. Even the things they have control over often end in frustration. So they’re usually disappointed, distressed, or disgruntled. Not a mindset we want to adopt! By practicing the paramita of patience, we’ll stop struggling with our conditions. Instead, we accept that life doesn’t often go as we wish. And that’s alright. So if we’re too warm, that’s okay. A little hungry? Stuck in a slow line? Working with those with a different work ethic? That’s life! And it’ll be much more pleasant when we are patient.
Working in fits and starts, enthusiasm waxing and waning like the moon on steroids, unpredictable in the best of circumstances and undependable in the worst. With the best intentions, those who procrastinate just don’t seem to follow anything through to completion. Even with good ideas, they don’t accomplish much. Their motto: there’s always tomorrow. Overwhelmed by a looming task, their modus operandi seems to be escaping to a mind-numbing activity like watching TV or surfing the Internet. They may be the sweetest people we know, but they’re not dependable. And, sadly, we can’t rely on them when tasks await. Our lesson from them? We need to focus on the task at hand and stick with it. We don’t want to get overworked or, on the flip side, lose interest. So wisely, we pace ourselves. This way, we’ll get daily satisfaction from having set a goal and then progressing toward it.
Unmindful of what they are doing, oblivious to the looming consequences, heedless people drift through life unable to focus on tasks, whether assigned or chosen. This aimless meandering also threatens a person’s spiritual quest. People know it’s beneficial, but they don’t pick one. When they do, they still dillydally. They set a goal and know to reach it, but they lack the will to do the necessary work. And so, they pretty much continue drifting from task to task, half-hearted and unfocused. Now consider a person who keeps the focus. We want to be this person, if not already. Endeavoring to complete things the best we can and believing in the importance of our spiritual practice, we now determine how best to accomplish the practice. Equipped with a generous heart, a principled approach to life, patience, and diligence, we can settle down to our true work: attaining meditative concentration.
Unawakened beings perceive themselves as the center of their universe. Viewing their thoughts as real and their body as who they are, they further assume that objects can be possessed and relationships will last forever. But, inevitably, fear creeps in. Might a close relationship turn sour? What if a prized object is lost? Or stolen? What if their body—who they are—gets sickened with disease? Or incapacitated? Fear is everywhere, attaching itself to everything these people know and have, to all their experiences. Learn from these people. And leave fear and worries behind. We can do it by calming our minds. With a calm mind, wisdom will arise. With wisdom, we will know our body is only a vehicle used for a lifetime. This body isn’t “I.” Nothing can be kept or possessed, and so, there is really nothing to lose. When we practice to awaken, we will know there is nothing to fear.
I think it would be safe to say that parents have been saying “do what I say” to their children for millennia, or even longer. But what if the parents’ behavior do not match the stern words for their children. “Turn off your TV!” while they return to the soccer finals. “Don’t waste time playing on your phone!” But they text a friend about the latest kerfuffle at work. “You’re spending too much time on the Internet!” even as they continue gaming online. “Talk nicely to your brother!” But the heated discussion with their neighbor carries on. Children learn by observing. And if what parents say isn’t what they do, their children will see the disparity. They want to know why their parents are not following the rules that they have laid out. It’s pretty tough to come up with a good answer to such logic. “Because I’m your mother/father” won’t cut it. Unless parents want a mini-rebellion on their hands, they’d be better off doing what they’re telling their children to do.
Just like little children who thrust out their hands to grasp a new enticing sweet they see, we too set our mind on obtaining that something we just heard about. After some second thoughts, we decide to abandon our quest. But the initial momentum to pursue the prize and the visions of euphoria and satisfaction in eventually bagging a new possession block out our decision to end the chase. In fact, we’ve been judiciously avoiding this rethinking. So conditioned are we by our craving and so caught up are we in envisaging the pursuit, that we forget the abandoning of what we’re now lusting after. Thankfully, as we practice, we will find the pool of experiences and stuff we crave ever shrinking. Which is good. Even better is remembering how we’re contentedly simplifying our life the next time a new piece of “candy” catches our attention, and we’re tempted to shout, “Mine!”
Regrets, self-reproach, guilt. We can learn from these and become better people. Or, we can be overwhelmed by them, forever reliving past mistakes. Events unfolding in our present lifetime were set into motion by our thoughts and actions from countless lifetimes ago. In other words, whatever is happening is supposed to happen. Yes, we’d have better health if we had spent more time easing others’ worries instead of being absorbed in our own. Yes, we’d be happier if we had the courage to do the right thing in the face of opposition. Yes, we’d be enjoying more good fortune if we had put others ahead of us. We didn’t do any of the above. So now we suffer. But suffering need not become a permanent fixture in our lives. Learning cause and effect allows us to understand why we are in our current situation. But don’t stop here. Put our newfound understanding into action. Now! And we will reap the benefits of a better situation in the future.
We all know her. She’s the one who happily informs us that we’re doing something incorrectly. In front of others. The one who commends our good work to others. Then humbly adds that she was the one who talked us into doing it. The one who describes her memory as faultless, but gets the facts of what we accomplished wrong. It sure feels like an incredibly annoying person, right? Maybe not. Granted, the odds of meeting a bodhisattva are pretty slim. But the reality is that we can’t be sure. Bodhisattvas know what we need to learn. And they teach us. Things like patience in the face of frustrating circumstances. Or knowing what is truly important as opposed to what soothes our ego. Or the benefits of remaining quiet because defending ourselves would result in animosity, not the truth revealed. With wisdom, even that annoying person can serve as our personal bodhisattva. It all depends on what we tell ourselves. Which could be the best teaching of all.
How many times have you met someone and instantly liked him? Or someone else you immediately disliked. Both people had smiled at you, but your response to each was very different. What’s going on here? You just ran into an old karmic affinity in the first instance and an enmity in the second. Your store consciousness recognized theirs and, in a flash, old feelings about them arose within you. But this does not apply only to humans. Consider the cat who always seeks our company and whom we feel a deep affection for; the dog that growls only at us; the squirrel who eats contentedly from our hand. Consider also two distinct animals, normally hunter and prey, romping together like best friends. We are reacting from karmic relationships, good and bad ones, just as the animals are. Developed over past lifetimes, these relationships are not bound by form or even the current path of existence. Yet another reason to respect all beings.
Food security, animal agriculture, gender equality, climate change, single-use plastics, chemical pollution, resource depletion. There’s so much to be concerned about if we want to be a responsible member of society! And the list keeps growing in our over-populated, consumer-oriented, technology-driven world. Because everyone apparently wants more, especially those who have the most. It’s overwhelming. “How much can I do?” we ask ourselves. We want to throw up our hands and give up even trying. Resist that urge. It would be great to do everything perfectly (or even imperfectly). But we can’t. So, instead, we need to figure out what we can do. Focus on a social concern, study it, and get to work. Let others choose and work on their own concerns. If we’re not rebounding erratically from one issue to another, we’ll all focus our energy and end up accomplishing a lot more. And then be able to take on the next one.
In this case, the messenger is the one bringing about our consequences. A co-worker laughs openly at our mistakes made in the annual report. A loved one criticizes us embarrassingly in front of others. Our laptop is stolen, a neighbor plays his TV loudly while we’re trying to sleep, a visiting child breaks our heirloom teapot. Getting upset with the co-worker, loved one, thief, neighbor, or child are misdirected actions—born from not understanding or nor remembering the pervasiveness of causality. If we hadn’t laughed at another, criticized unskillfully, stolen or broken someone’s property, made a lot of noise that bothered others in this or past lifetimes, we wouldn’t be experiencing these incidents. All the above people are just the messengers delivering our karmic retributions. Our getting upset or angry or sad just plants more seeds for the same, and even worse. We need to work with ourselves on learning to accept our karmic consequences. And not shoot the messenger.
Imagine you are going to step onto on a balance board for the first time. It looks friendly enough: a rectangular piece of wood placed over the barrel of a cylinder. And it looks easy: step on the board, legs apart, keep your balance. If you remain centered and upright, you won’t fall. So they say. And so on you go. Oops, down you go! Telling yourself that mastery will take some practice, you try again. And this time you concentrate. But the next second, you think of something else. Losing your focus, down you go again. Telling yourself that you just have to focus harder, you step back on. Now you really concentrate. Over time, as you practice over and over, and over, you realize that you cannot have a single wandering thought, or you will lose your balance. Our Buddhist practice is the same. As we focus on “Amituofo,” wandering thoughts will arise, jeopardizing our focus. Just like on the balance board, when we lose our concentration, we fall off and have to get back on.
The sad reality is that we often notice annoying habits in others because we have the same ones. We just don’t notice them when we’re the perpetrator. It’s so much easier to see them in others! Perhaps the person is offering his thoughts. On everything. Okay, let’s stop right here. This may be a habit indulged in by a fair number of people, including us. Voicing an opinion may stem from the person’s (our) sincere wish to be helpful. Or from an honest belief that they (we) know the answer to a question someone asked at dinner. Whatever the reason, the person’s seemingly endless stream of replies bothers us. And then one day, we overhear someone mutter to themselves “the world according to….” And they then say our name, with frustration in every syllable. Wow! Speak of the proverbial bucket of cold water—we too have fallen into the habit of trying to be helpful, informative, etcetera. And apparently failing. So we, also, are annoying others.
Preparing to meditate, we turn down the lights, perhaps light a candle or some incense, assume our preferred sitting posture, and close our eyes. As we take a relaxing deep breath, our mind begins to settle. Then, in an instant, our mind is again distracted. An idea for something we’re writing, a meeting we had forgotten to schedule, our overdue library books—these are all important, just not more than our meditation. If we’re really concerned that we cannot remember the thought again, we can jot it down and return to our meditation. What if it is yet another wandering thought? For these thoughts and others that pop up, we get our “Not Now” brush. Mine is like the dustpan brush we had when I was young: sturdy wooden handle, soft black bristles. With our virtual brush in hand, we gently, but firmly, silently murmur “not now” and brush the thought away. Now we can return to our meditation, our “Not Now” brush ever ready.
The teachings make sense, we respect our teacher, we like the chanting. We might even enjoy visiting a center where the ceremonies are in another language! And yet, despite all this, we don’t feel like we’re making any real progress. We hear accounts of people who are doing well in their practice, but we feel stuck in ours. And so we wonder “What am I doing wrong?” Very likely we’re still clinging to our attachments. Attachment to what is familiar, to judging those around us, to meeting other’s expectations of us. Attachment to those we love, to all that we deem life-enhancing. It’s like holding a cup brimming with Enjoyment tea and wondering why we can’t pour in any more. Might the problem be our ego? Our wanting to control, to please others, to reject that which we dislike, to hold on to what we enjoy while avoiding everything else. Are these what we really want? Or can we begin to see how they’re keeping us stuck when we yearn to move on?
Looking through a friend’s photos from a recent family gathering, we see image after image of happy people. A father dancing with his young daughter, spouses opening a present together, nieces and nephews clowning around. Everyone is laughing and relaxed and comfortable with one another. Then we think of our own life, which pales by comparison. Okay, we need to stop here. And reconsider. What we see is merely a snapshot of a moment in time. The lens does not delve into the frame-by-frame reality of someone’s life. We’re looking at the public face, the one people instinctively put on when they step out their front door. If we could see them at home, just going about their business, we’d see that they too experience unhappiness and disappointment. We’d see they’re very much like us. And we’d realize that we’re not the only ones who are living imperfect lives. We all are.
“Goodness, these bags are heavy! And there’s so many of them, how will we ever keep track of them all? Plus, just look at them, they’re all mismatched. Some look ancient and tattered, really old and dusty.” Looking inside one, we see old images of unknown people, faded documents with unpronounceable names, strange-looking clothes, books in languages we can’t read, and more. Then we look in another. Then another. What a jumble of stuff. After a few more bags, we realize that the contents are totally unimportant things. We don’t need them. They are useless and can be discarded. And with that, we close our bags and walk away, leaving them behind to vanish. Unencumbered, we feel lighter than we can ever recall feeling. As we were told, when our mind opens up, we will realize there is no longer a need for all the baggage we have accumulated over uncountable lifetimes. We can discard it all. And having done so, we will naturally let go and feel joy physically and mentally.
Perhaps we identify ourselves as “artist” or “surgeon.” Then one day dawns this realization—the skills that provide our identity have slipped beyond our ability to perform them. We are unable to paint what we see so clearly in our mind, unable to perform an operation that would save a young man’s life. No longer artist or surgeon, we feel bereft. When clinging to “I am …,” we set ourselves up for suffering. But if we understand that everything is truly impermanent, that we are more than whatever we are right now, our suffering will abate. Life is a series of I am’s. Perhaps we were once a strong nimble child, or a student who could stay awake all night studying. Perhaps, later, a caring parent. These are identities at some point in time—and all are impermanent. I am’s are not fixed. They are stops along our way in this lifetime. Let us appreciate them when we are there. When their time is past, smile, wave goodbye, and let go. “I am no longer” is alright too.