Last week I had the extraordinarily great fortune to attend the Dalai Lama’s talk in San Jose, AND a weekend retreat with Pema Chodron! I’m still happily reeling from the brilliant wisdom of these two teachers, and the blessings of their visits to California. One of my other teachers, Jim, recently said that “service is when you encounter precious teachings and pass them along.” So I feel compelled to share some of the gems that were generously given by these bodhisattvas.
The gems were countless, and I’m only sharing a few, but this is still a really long post… so make yourself a cup of tea and enjoy!
The Dalai Lama
His Holiness was as humble, funny, charming, brilliant and wise as his reputation foretells. He taught an audience of 3,000 people about an ancient Buddhist text, “Eight Verses for Training the Mind,” which shows us how to practice altruism in daily life. He recites this text every day, and he likes it because he is lazy and it’s nice and short!
Highlights from the Dalai Lama’s Talk
* When our basic mental attitude is good, everything around us appears positive. When our mental attitude is not so good, everything appears negative. So the troublemaker is not outside us, but in our mind. It’s helpful to tackle the real troublemaker by understanding our minds through wisdom and reasoning. Enlightenment can only come through transformation of our own mind.
* Human beings always have a feeling of “self” and “self-cherishing.” However, a self-centered attitude is the key element of an unhappy society. We should choose not to cheat, bully, or exploit other people out of self-centeredness. Instead, we can choose friendship (we are social animals, so friendship is essential), and friendship comes on the basis of trust, which is based on honesty.
* Afflictions like anger and hostility always have an underlying condition. They start as something small, like a minor feeling of dissatisfaction. It is important to have a strategy to deal with negative emotions as they arise, at this underlying stage, and catch them at the beginning to cut their fuel out. Otherwise they get in the way of our wisdom.
* We need to pay special attention to people who are marginalized by society, like criminals and people with AIDS. We need to recognize their potential and give them a chance to connect with other human beings, because human nature is social. Through education and compassionate surroundings, negative people always have the possibility to change.
* When someone slanders or unjustly accuses you, don’t retaliate, but offer victory to the other side. (He likened this to the gospel’s advice to turn the other cheek.)
* When someone you’ve helped mistreats you, it’s conventionally seen as ungrateful and inappropriate. But, don’t give in to the temptation to respond negatively. Use the opportunity to further your practice of altruism. Appreciate the value of patience — and appreciate the conditions that give rise to patience, like the actions of this person who mistreated you. You can see them as a precious teacher.
* Make sure your spiritual practices aren’t tainted by materialistic concerns, i.e., wishes for fame, money, etc. Even the tiniest inkling of a thought like “maybe I’ll get a lot of money by teaching spiritual practices” will taint your practice. Our materialistic concerns arise from an underlying, distorted perception of the world, which causes us to grasp at things that are impermanent. The antidote is to cultivate the wisdom of understanding suffering and impermanence, and the wisdom of emptiness (dependent origination).
* Destructive emotions are the real destroyers of inner peace. When we train our minds and investigate our minds and emotions, inner peace can become a real part of our lives and our minds will be calm.
Pema Chodron, in a retreat titled “Smile at Fear,” shared a treasure trove of wisdom. She has an incredibly loving and compassionate, yet realistic, straightforward, no-BS approach. Like the Dalai Lama, she had an audience of 3,000, and she answered many personal questions from folks who were intensely suffering — including a cancer patient, a recent divorcee, a man with two violent autistic kids, a woman dealing with PTSD from a violent childhood, and people whose loved ones recently died. Pema commented on the amazing number of “unsolvable, unfixable” situations that were presented. She said that’s how life is — unsolvable. All the time. We just fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. Her advice is to befriend our fear. She said, “It’s useful to think of every situation in our life as unsolvable… we can ask, ‘Where will this take me?'”
Gems from Pema Chodron’s Retreat
* We are needed here on this earth. Let’s make a commitment to be of help to our families, our neighbors, the earth itself.
* Unavoidable uncertainty — that’s what it’s like to be a human being. When this fundamental uncertainty is our experience, it’s unnerving. It feels out of control, which can lead to fear. (Time reported: scientific tests have proven that people are more afraid of uncertainty than of physical pain.) When fear arises, we tend to go inward, armor ourselves, cut ourselves off from the rest of the world. We want to get away from the discomfort. We try to find something to hold on to. But when we do that, we set up a chain reaction, getting harder and harder, walling ourselves off. Then great pain arises — in the form of anger, prejudice, addiction, etc.
* Pema presented an “urgent invitation” to move closer to uncertainty and relax with our fear of it. The truth is, uncertainty is the background of everyone’s life because of death, change, impermanence. There is uncertainty because the nature of things is fluid and dynamic. When this primordial uncertainty (also known as vast, open, fresh space) is related to with courage, when we turn toward it rather than moving away, we can see it as a place that’s fertile with compassion. We find a place that’s tender and soft. We develop the quality of a warrior: tender-hearted bravery.
* The basis of our fear of uncertainty is doubting ourselves, not feeling good about ourselves. The first step in befriending fear is developing unconditional friendship with oneself. This means looking at ourselves clearly, staying with ourselves when we want to shut down, even when it feels embarrassing or hateful. This is the hallmark of bodhisattva training: in order to go anywhere in the world and help other people without shutting down, the first step is to look at ourselves with gentleness and kindness. Without a mask, without armor, we see everything about ourselves and don’t run away.
* Meditation allows us to see all of ourselves with gentleness and kindness but dead honesty.
* Smile at fear, taste fear, know fear. Engage — in a curious, wholehearted way — that which we’ve been avoiding our whole lives. Do this with gentleness. Do it “sip by sip.” Just touch in briefly. When fear arises in you, get curious about it for a few seconds: how does it feel in your body? Drop the story line, let the thoughts go. (Our thoughts add fuel to the fire of fear.) In the same way that many drops eventually fill a bucket, many “sips” cultivate our strength and capacity to be with our experiences. Eventually you develop confidence in your heart that you can dispel your own darkness.
* As you become more comfortable with yourself, you begin to see the world more clearly and to treasure it with appreciation and gratitude. As your courage grows, you become more interested in fellowship with all kinds of people. You really feel the richness of the world. You can wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “I wonder what’s going to happen today!” (This is one monk’s morning mantra.)
* We have a nature of basic goodness (Buddha nature). This refers to the fluid, dynamic, unfixated quality of our minds and hearts, before we close down and decide that things are “good” or “bad.” Basic goodness is characterized by open-mindedness, and it manifests as curiosity, taking an interest in life. Everybody has the capacity to live from this place of openness. It happens when we don’t pre-determine what someone is going to do. We are open, drop our agenda, and go freshly into a situation, available to our world.
* Paradox and ambiguity — that is the flavor of life. We want it to be one way or the other. But the nature of this existence is dynamic and paradoxical.
* Joy comes from realizing that nothing is ever a dead end. Whatever is happening at the present time is the fruition of something, and the seed of something else. It’s always the start of something fresh. Rilke said, “No feeling is final.”
* Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Living with ourselves is like riding a fickle horse, but we can hold our seat.”