Architect of One's Life (Part 2)

by Jigme Rinpoche

We have seen how meditation is the heart of the path to enlightenment. Although to attain enlightenment may not be the goal for everyone, those of us who wish to do the same as the Tathagatha1 will decide to tread the path to enlightenment; for us, meditation is necessary. Others will lead a normal life but may wish to improve their circumstances. They come to know about the nature of mind one way or another, and ultimately are led to Buddhahood. Some of us want to stop suffering. Since the premise of the entire Buddha's teachings is that suffering is the cause or root of everything, whether our motivation is to reach Buddhahood or to stop suffering, the path is the same.

Some people believe that the Dharma or teachings are altruistic and therefore exclude those people who only want to look after themselves. Regardless of whether the point of departure is selfishness or not, when we start practicing the Dharma, we start to see things as they truly are. At some point we will understand that nothing is possible when we are not concerned with the welfare of others. Whatever the motivation is at the beginning, the practice will inevitably reveal that others are vitally important and our motivation will naturally change.

On a practical level, the first thing is to be aware that each person is endowed with Buddha nature, a clear consciousness able to apprehend the whole universe. We think on the one hand, 'I'll try to experience this consciousness free from suffering,' and then on the other, 'I live in a world made by happiness and suffering.' We have to understand that everything is suffering. Even happiness is a cause of suffering because happiness has an end. Open any book about the 'Four Noble Truths'. Does it not state that everything is suffering? We need to understand this fundamental axiom in order to be aware that happiness is suffering. We need to be aware that our mind is the Tathagatha, and to see this world of suffering as it is, to understand it clearly.

Secondly, we look at ignorance. Some regard it as a demon, but ignorance is not an evil force nor is it some energy out to destroy us. Although it is not malevolent, it is true that it underlines the root of all suffering. When ignorance diminishes, so does suffering. For example, if my leg hurts and it does not stop, I might start to imagine that it might be a cancer. If someone tells me that there is a splinter there, all my mental suffering immediately disappears. I can then tend to the pain. But if I cannot see it clearly, my actions might be inappropriate and harm me instead. So most of the time an incident might be trivial, but if we do not see it truly for what it is, it can be very dangerous. Fighting ignorance is not like starting a war. It is simply opening our eyes to notice the little things that, if not recognized, might become problematic and dangerous for others and ourselves.

We have a tendency to want everything right now. After hearing the teachings, we think that we have the keys, but somehow they don't fit. We may then turn away without considering our own efforts and input. For example, as in the case of the splinter, even though I knew that it would not get worse, it would still be painful for some time. Thus we need to develop an attitude of being relaxed while doing what is necessary. It may take time, but improvement will gradually come. The danger here is the tension we experience while waiting for a result. In fact, such anxiety actually slows or blocks the improvement. Whatever we do, it is done better in a relaxed way. If we rush, it will take longer.

During our attempt to decrease our suffering, we must not exclude other people. They are essential to our success because through them we build up our strength of awareness. When we meditate, we have a clearer mind, but when we come out of our practice and face others, we find that we have not improved thar much. Meditation makes us more sensitive to others around us. When we are alone, there is no problem, but when facing other people, our emotions will surface. It is in our experiences with other people that we find fuel for improvement. If we want to have enduring results, we have to strike a balance between being others and our solitude. The attitude to develop is a reasonable balance of reaction and acceptance. There is no pre-established standard. Through our interaction with other people we will improve, but each of us has to find our own limits.

The key is to be aware so that we can see things clearly and dispense with any preconceived points of view which cloud our perception. We want to recognize what is really taking place. Every time we look, we find 'ego grasping'. It is the fist movement of our consciousness. We all have this first reaction of, 'I perceive.' At the base of any experience is ego grasping which is the root of suffering. When we discover this ego grasping there is a tendency to fight it. The point is not to fight it but to recognize it, directly or indirectly perceiving it: 'I want,' which is desire, or, 'I don't want,' showing our aversion, or, 'I don't care,' our ignorance. All the emotions are due to ego grasping, a dualistic mode of perception, 'I' and 'others'. It produces much suffering yet we cannot get rid of it by waving a magic wand. It is interesting to look at the ego grasping in any experience, and to start working with it.

The term,'disturbing emotions' is merely a label. In fact, when we do examine these emotions, we will mental events, images, sensations, etc. and not know to what they correspond. Take, for example, the study of botany. We first gain understanding of the connection between flowers and fruits, how they grow, and the sequence corresponding to the seasons. In the same way, we first gain awareness and then understanding of the 'distirbing emotions' and 'ego grasping'. Generally, we only investigate or question ourselves when we something has gone wrong or we are not happy. When we are happy, we don't do anything. At the base of our consciousness, there is the ego grasping, 'What I like, what I don't like, I don't care, etc.' The more we know about ourselves, the better our chance of liking and accepting ourselves. Ego grasping is also the root of pride, jealousy, and the other disturbing emotions. Slowly and gradually we will realize that ego grasping pervades all of our experience. We will see our jealousy and pride. In the example of botany, this is like seeing the seed or the sprout. If we want to get rid of the plant, it is easier to get rid of the sprout.

Mind is ever on-going, a continuum. This on-going process cannot be adequately described with words. The mind moves forward on 'tracks' derived from habits. When we left our consciousness drift away, we find ourselves following our habitual tendencies thar are nothing other than our egos at work. We have developed these tendencies from past experiences. We need to realize that when we are not vigilant, we tend to drift toward jealousy or pride or any of the other emotions that are habitual. We can weaken these tendencies by modifying our reactions in a more balanced way, and we can slowly start to affect some changes in our habits.We can cultivate openness and benevolence if we have first noticed our habitual tendencies.

With practice, we will learn over time to see ever more clearly how, because of ego grasping, the mind reacts with pride, jealousy, greed, and so on. In our relationships with others, we are always expecting something. This is extremely important to realize, because our expectations cause conflicts when they are not fulfilled. Within our familial and work surroundings, we usually have a lot of expectations. We often pretend that we are acting for the welfare of others while at the same time harboring expectations which will then lead to frustrations. 'I expected from so and so... now, I am frustrated. I thought I was right. They have let me down. Either I was in the wrong, or, they didn't come through!' We should be aware that everyone everywhere is like this, including ourselves. It is common to think like this, but nevertheless we need to be aware of it.

To be able to see this attitude with some sense of humor is helpful and necessary. Don't imagine that there is a 'quick fix' to modify it. The habitual reflex will change somewhat after having noticed it, but we cannot force a change to take place. Ever since our childhood, we have been told:' It is not good to be proud, not good to be jealous, etc.' What was not said is that these emotions, anger, pride, jealousy, et., are generally what our minds are preoccupied with. The same mind experiences both greed and generosity. In fact, there is really no 'bad' versus 'good'; rather it is a mere mislabeling. This why it is so important to see and understand. The key is not to reject these emotions but to recognize them. What appears as pride can be changed into the energy of action. Insofar as it is recognized, it becomes a quality. Jealousy can be transformed into the quality of perseverance, leading us to bodhicitta, to enlightenment. Anger arises when something goes wrong. The same anger could be a quality of lucidity able to help correct a situation and thus could be very useful.

Recognizing our emotions does not mean that we should go against or get rid of them. There is nothing to reject, there are only different energies to be used in potentially beneficial ways. By being aware, it is possible to change the expression of the energy from negative to positive.

Buddha said, 'I can give you the means to liberation but I cannot set you free. I can give you the tools to reach the goal.' He also taught that it is not possible to free oneself without the 'others'. Ultimate enlightenment is attained only through bodhicitta. We cannot develop qualities when isolated because, to overcome ego grasping our success depends on our contact with others. We can seize the chance to take advantage of our emotions when they arise in order to modify and change our habitual tendencies. Bodhicitta, or loving kindness., is the attitude to apply to bring about the changes. There is no other way. We need to put ourselves in the place of others, be aware that they are unhappy, and see for ourselves that our own happiness depends on theirs. This also means that our view, so that our vision of any situation becomes more complete and thereby more precise. The immediate result of the application of bodhicitta is that we stop rejecting our responsibility for whatever is happening.

How do we develop the necessary vigilance and integrate it into our experience? The goal is to perceive the true nature of our mind, the true nature of both mental and outer phenomena. Slowly and gradually, we improve the way we live our lives and elevate ourselves by following the guidelines given in the teachings. Then we will arrive at a stage where we can take control over our existence. We embark on a spiritual path taking into account all the implications of the law of cause and effect. We make an effort to be aware of what is positive and negative while on the path to enlightenment. Unless we retreat into solitude, we will continue to learn more toward negative acts. However, if we are vigilant we can see through all negativity. We will then have an opportunity to work with our negative perceptions through our practice and turn them into useful qualities. By being conscious, not only do we live with less suffering, but we are striving toward enlightenment.

We also need to be able to perceive the true nature of the mind. There is an all-base consciousness that underlines all the sense consciousness and ego grasping called the alaya vinayana or tathagatagarba. We obscure this all-base consciousness by both our habitual tendencies and our dualistic mode of perception. We can only work on ourselves, but unfortunately, we don't have access to these levels of consciousness. It is precisely in the alaya vinayana that all karmic imprints are stored. The effects of negative actions generate suffering while at the same time increasing the two veils of habitual tendencies and tainted modes of perception. Positive actions, on the contrary, enhance our progress on the path to enlightenment and provide the much needed relief of immediate suffering.

To practice the Dharma (Buddha's teachings), we don't necessarily have to become Buddhists. It can be just as effective if we learn to take control of lives by using the methods discussed above. What is ordinarily referred to as virtue becomes transcendental virtue, or paramita2. Ordinary qualities enable us to go beyond suffering. One of the six paramitas is ethics. Positive behavior is deemed positive depending on personal experience and these positive acts always help to remove the veils that obscure consciousness. There are no external rules to follow. Everyday we need to keep a watchful eye on what we do. In time, our awareness during meditation will gradually become more clear, and in our daily lives, we will be able to perceive the positive results in our actions. This positive improvement will spread to our relationships with others. Our awareness will guide us to minimize suffering for others and ourselves. When we behave wrongly, we will realize our responsibility and no longer make excuses. We will correct and adjust ourselves, and eventually we will act appropriately.

The spiritual path demands a sharp awareness of negative action because recognizing the character of what we do is crucial. We need to feel regret for our bad actions as if we have swallowed poison. It is important to think that, 'If I could go back into the past, I would not do it again.' It is also important to note that we do not necessarily need to feel guilty. The benefit of regret is that it urges us not to do wrong again. We can then engage in practices that purify the negativity and spur us on to do what is right. All this can happen if we feel real regret. The process of self-correction can start at a mundane level and can eventually evolve into a superior path of practice where we employ more powerful tools and means to remove our mental veils. We can form new habits, such as reflecting every night on the activities of the day. This awareness helps us create a habit of performing more positive acts because we can see that we can create our experiences and results every day.

The path of Dharma is based on the infallible axiom of karma, that all causes and all actions have results. This does not just stop at the gross and outer levels but also permeates our whole being. The emotions of jealousy and anger for example not only generate consequences, but also imprints in the all-base consciousness. These imprints will condition our perceptions that are the food of previous actions and explain why we are as we are now. We realize with caution that any anger, however small, will leave imprints in our base consciousness and this will have an impact on our future existence. A positive example, on the other hand, is the Chenrizig practice of compassion. It strengthens the positive imprints in the consciousness which will in turn condition our perception of the universe.

As we advance on the path, the practice of ethics becomes more and more important. As explained already, ethics is not a set of external rules but it has its base in being vigilant in the need to always keep a watchful eye on what we do. Having understood this about karma, we might be afraid of falling down. What if we are unable to perceive the negative character of an action and think instead that it was positive? The ten negative actions involving the three categories of body, speech, and mind are a useful guide:

  • Mind: envy, malevolence, wrong views;
  • Speech: lying, slander, callousness, idle talk (e.g. about faults of others);
  • Body: killing, stealing (taking what is not given), harming beings sexually.

We have tendency to go and ask a lama, 'Is this good or not?' If we look closely enough and we are honest, we really do not need to ask. Ethics will steer us into looking at things as they really are, that is, to do 'good'. We can use our own understanding and can refer to external rules if we are not sure. On the surface, ethics do not seem very important, but the consequences can be grave. Small actions, positive or negative, can bring big, unpredictable results. We are responsible for our actions and do not want to take for granted the little things that we can do. We can protect even the smallest life. Our generosity will open us to the ten positive actions. We can deter someone from committing wrong. We can strive to perform small positive things and refrain from small negative actions, ever aware that all actions will bring results. By acting in a positive way, we diminish the agitation of our minds. This in turn will facilitate more positive actions leading to more peace of mind. Everything is of consequence, be it positive or negative, and we have to encourage ourselves to do what is positive.

We can see that the spiritual path is pervasive in all aspects of our lives. There is not one period of time for practice, and another when we are not in practice. It is essential to be aware of how we communicate with others. If possible, with awareness we can try to be kind. We can practice the two accumulations: performing positive actions that lead to good results and having lucidity of mind with ever-present awareness. The latter requires our vigilance all the time. Both accumulations are important and are interrelated. If we find ourselves more engaged in one accumulation, we can expand our time and energy in the other.

There are two qualities relative to the spiritual path that transcend the rationale of ordinary life, faith, and confidence; both are beyond intellectual understanding. We can speak of ethics, perseverance, and other qualities. We need to go beyond the confines of our ordinary perception and reasoning, which is only possible if we have a proper foundation. Our practice will not work if we do not have a solid grounding in ethics. Only then can we try to enter a formal spiritual practice. We need to develop the aspiration to achieve enlightenment. We begin our practice with simple and ordinary experiences that are readily available and easily understood in our everyday life. Our practice can take us to higher levels. To explain what we mean by going beyond the ordinary level, we use the example of bodhicitta and our good wishes for all beings. Even though it cannot be explained in words, the power of making wishes to benefit all beings can and will bring about strength in our mind that can purify negativity and make use of the power of wisdom. Although this cannot be explained in ordinary terms, it can be experienced. What is necessary is the accumulation of positive actions in order to transcend the existing boundaries. At that point we can perceive what seems otherwise irrational and can truly understand that we can only be happy by caring for the welfare of others.

Through our formal practice, our understanding will become deeper and sharper. We will understand emptiness, not to be misunderstood as nothingness, that is the nature of all things. We will understand why the practice of yidam3 can be so effective, how the purification practice works, and why we need a lama. We can go beyond rational through rational logic and meditation. We will gradually grasp the meaning of the 'developing phase' and 'completion phase' of the practice and how the different phases of the practice are useful. We will gradually understand why some practices are long while others are short. It is necessary to venture forward and investigate for ourselves. The practice works, yet the explanation lies beyond logic. Gradually, we will go farther and farther. This is what we mean by the 'understanding of the practice'. Of course, our formal practice and daily life are not on the same level, but are of the same path.

To become architects of our own lives, we have to stand on a proper base. The base is essential for our daily life while integrating all the aspects of practice to reach enlightenment. The base also serves to provide comfort and peace of mind while we are on the spiritual path. With a solid foundation, everything is possible. Without it, nothing is possible.

    1 Tathagatha refers to the essence of the Buddha.
    2 Paramita - the perfection that leads to enlightenment. The six paramitas are:generosity, discipline,
      patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom.
    3 Yidam - an enlightened aspect of Buddha in the form of a deity thathelps a practitioner on his or her
      path to enlightenment.

Buddhism Today Vol.9, 2001