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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > Bringing Buddhism Down to Earth > Session One: Letting Down the Walls

Bringing Buddhism Down to Earth

Alexander Berzin
Munich, Germany, June 1996

[lightly edited transcript]

Session One: Letting Down the Walls

Introduction

This weekend I was asked to speak about a topic that’s not so easy to define: “Dealing with Fantasies about Buddhism” or “Facing Buddhism with a Realistic Attitude” or perhaps “Bringing Buddhism Down to Earth.” It’s been a little bit difficult, I must admit, to try to organize in my mind what exactly to speak about and to do during this weekend. I could speak about difficulties that I’ve had in dealing with Buddhism from my own experience or about difficulties that friends and acquaintances of mine have had in dealing with Buddhism, but none of that might be specifically relevant to the difficulties that you might be having. That’s the problem. And so, on the one hand, it might be helpful to speak just about general difficulties that people have; but also it might be helpful in shaping this course by having you speak up about things that you would like to know about and hearing what you have had difficulties with.

Now, I wouldn’t like that the direction of the course be just asking technical questions about this or that point in Buddhism. I think it would be more helpful for everybody if we speak about general problems that many people might share in trying to follow a practical approach to the Dharma, like difficulties in accepting a teacher or in seeing the necessity of the teacher, difficulties in relating to tantra, and so on.

The Way of Proceeding

Let me just give you a thought – like a sampler from a box of chocolates, to give you a sense of what I have in mind. For instance, the standard way of starting any Buddhist teaching is to establish or set our motivation. Actually, that’s not very easy to do. I don’t find it so easy to do, because we have to make a careful balance between just saying words in our heads and actually feeling something in our hearts and bodies.

I think for many of us, it’s very hard to actually clearly define what it means to feel something, particularly a motivation. I mean we could feel sad – we know what that feels like. But to feel a motivation – that’s not so easy to know what that’s referring to. It’s these types of issues that I think would be very interesting to deal with this weekend. They’re rather tough issues, not easy ones. I think that that would be more beneficial than “How many signs of enlightenment does a Buddha have?” and I give you a number – not that kind of question. But again, as I said to start with, I’ve had a lot of difficulty just trying to put such kinds of issues in a logical order. I like things quite orderly and this has not been so simple.

That raises a very interesting point, which I think is relevant perhaps to many people. And that is that often we have not only general preconceptions, like everything needs to be in a logical order, but, more deeply, we like to be in control. When we’re in control and everything is “in order,” or at least when we think we’re in control, then somehow we feel a little bit more secure. We think we know what’s going to happen. But life’s not like that. We can’t always be in control and things can’t always be “in order.” The other side of that is we like to give the control over to somebody else so that they control us or they control the situation we’re in. It’s the same issue of control. 

But no one – not us or anyone else – can be in control of what happens in life. What happens is affected by a million factors, not just by one person. It’s necessary, therefore, to let go, in the sense of letting go of this strong grasping for a solid “me” that exists independently of everything else and that wants to be in control, regardless of what’s happening around it. It’s the solid “me” that thinks that it will establish its secure existence by being in control. It’s like thinking, “If I’m in control, I exist. If I’m not in control, I don’t really exist.” When we follow a Buddhist path, it’s necessary in many ways to give up this idea of being “in control.” That also means giving up the other side of the issue, which is giving that control to somebody else, specifically to the guru, the teacher, so that they’re in control. It’s the same issue. Both sides of control have to be overcome.

I think what’ll be very necessary this weekend, since we’ll be dealing with very human issues, is to speak to each other as human beings. So I’ll speak to you as one human being to another. I hope that I’m always speaking as one human being to another, rather than as an authority standing behind a podium as if I had all the answers.

I think that rather than trying to be in control and have the course progress in a logical order, it would be better, then, to let the weekend unfold like painting a picture. We put a little brush stroke here and a little brush stroke there, rather than trying to give a very orderly presentation. Since so many of the topics that we can discuss this weekend will overlap with each other and interconnect, I think that that’s the most sensible way that we can proceed.  

Motivation

Let’s go back to the first piece of chocolate in our box of samplers. I’ve not finished chewing it yet, so many of you may not have finished chewing it either. It’s the question of how do we feel a motivation. I think – since I know I’ve gone through this in my own development – that we think that feelings need to be dramatic in order to exist. If they’re dramatic, they count as feelings, they exist; if they’re not dramatic, they don’t count and they don’t really exist. I think that’s conditioned a little bit by movies and television. It’s not an interesting movie if something is just very subtle, is it? It needs to be dramatic, with moving music in the background!

Sometimes we read a Buddhist text that says, “Our compassion needs to be so moving that all the hairs on our body are standing up and tears come to our eyes.” But I think it would be quite difficult to lead our lives constantly like that. When we think of generating a motivation, sometimes we get the feeling that “I should feel something” – and that’s a theme that we’ll return to quite a lot this weekend, this whole word “should.” We think that “I should feel something strong. Otherwise, I’m not really generating a motivation if that doesn’t happen.” But, when we generate a motivation, generally it’s barely a sensation, at least in my own experience. It’s usually much more subtle than the hairs standing up on our arms. I think perhaps just speaking to you like that will be more beneficial – not speaking like from behind a podium, but rather sharing with you my own experience of doing these various things in Buddhism and how I’ve been dealing with these typical problems that most of us have as Westerners. So, let’s do like that.

We always hear in the teachings that we need to try to relate to others as if they were our mother: “Recognize everyone as your mother.” Many people, however, have difficulties in their relationship with their mothers, and so we can substitute for that idea or image our closest friend. This is because the point is not “mother”; the point is anybody with whom we have some sort of strong and positive emotional bond.

When setting a motivation, for instance tonight, what I try to do is to think of everybody in the audience as if you were my best friends. When we’re with our best friend, our closest friend, we’re sincere. We’re not putting on any sort of show or hiding behind any sort of mask or role. Isn’t that true? And when we’re with our closest friend, we sincerely feel something for that person. It’s not always dramatic, but it’s something that’s there.

When we start to apply teachings like, “See everybody as your mother,” in the sense of “See everybody as your closest friend,” then we start to actually have some sort of motivation. We have a sincere motivation. We sincerely want to do something beneficial for this person. We want our time with that person to be meaningful and helpful for him or her – unless we’re someone who’s very selfish and who just wants to exploit the other person for our own pleasure or advantage.

The Importance of Keeping Our Eyes Open

Also, I find that in doing the various Buddhist practices of equalizing and exchanging self for others, I don’t really experience a moving of my heart when I practice them in the form of visualizations while having my eyes closed. Yes, I could close my eyes and visualize my closest friend; but that’s not really the same as relating to people who are in front of me or to you right now. I find these practices far more meaningful when I do them with my eyes open and looking at people.

When we’re practicing alone, however, that’s of course something else. We could look at photos of people, if it’s difficult to imagine them. I think that that’s perfectly okay. But even if we’re visualizing others, I find it more beneficial to try to visualize individual specific persons, rather than just abstractly “all sentient beings.” And I try to do this with my eyes open, not shutting myself off from the world around me with my eyes closed.

When we look at the instructions concerning visualization in tantric practice – for instance, on the generation stage of anuttarayoga tantra – an extremely important point is that it’s to be done with mental consciousness. It’s not to be done with sense consciousness. To be able to visualize with sense consciousness is something that occurs only during the complete stage. The complete stage is very advanced and requires having actually manipulated the energy-winds of our sensory cells, so that they create the images of the visualization. That means that on the generation stage, we’re not changing the way that we perceive things; we’re changing the way that we conceptualize or conceive of what we perceive. Rather than conceive of what we see as existing in their ordinary forms, we conceive of them to be deities or Buddha-figures, for instance.

I hope that you’re getting the idea that in order to work with Dharma in any meaningful way, we need to put everything together that we’ve learned from the beginning. That means that when we’re visualizing someone as a deity or, in this particular example, when we’re visualizing everybody as being our closest friend or mother, we’re not changing our sense perception of the person at first. We’re merely changing the way that we conceptualize the person when we see him or her.

If we see the person, however, and ask, “What do we mean by conceptualize the person? What’s a conceptual cognition?” then we need to turn to the teachings on Lorig, ways of knowing. There, we learn that a conceptual cognition is one in which we mix the object in front of us – let’s say a physical object – with an idea of a category. Just to think of the idea of the category “best friend” mixed with a mental image of someone, however, doesn’t have as much strength to it, so to speak, as when we think of this idea while actually seeing someone at the same time.

Because of that, what does have strength, then, is doing all these meditation practices with our eyes open and actually looking at people. I can’t stress that enough! That really makes the whole difference in all the various practices. It’s said quite clearly in the Tibetan Mahayana teachings, “Do the meditations with your eyes open.” Many people fail to take that seriously because it’s not so easy to do. For some people, meditating by themselves alone, with eyes shut, is very conducive. Especially if they’re easily distracted, then having other people around will distract them. But if we’re a little bit more stable, the practices become very meaningful when we apply them to people in life, in reality.

What it means in this particular example of generating a motivation is – from my own example, here in this room – I look at you in front of me and I conceive of you and of the way that I relate to you as if you were my closest friend. If you’re really my closest friend – I can’t think of a nice word for it, but in colloquial words – I can’t bullshit you. I have to be sincere. And then I naturally have the motivation to benefit you. Sure, we can also repeat some words in our minds, like “I really hope that this is going to be meaningful and helpful to you.” But this, in a sense, is just making a little bit more conscious what we’ve already established by looking at the people around us as our best friends.

When I do that, I find that the hairs on my arm don’t stand up. That’s true. But still, there’s something there that helps in the relationship between us. I think that this is the general way in which we can generate some sort of feeling for just these very simple things that we take for granted: “Blah blah blah. I set my motivation.” Usually we just chant it in Tibetan so, for most of us, even the words we recite have no meaning at all.

Maybe we can do a little bit of practice with these things. I don’t want this weekend to be exclusively about me talking. Since we’re not a huge crowd, let’s sit in a circle. When we sit in rows, one behind the other, we tend to experience the awkwardness of staring at the pillow or at the back of the head of the person in front of us, which is really weird after a while. If we sit in a circle, we can all see everyone else’s face.

What we can try to do now is to establish our motivation. Again to say “establish a motivation” sounds so artificial, doesn’t it? But what we’re doing, if we put it into other words – I’m a translator, so I love to change the words – is “setting a mood” in ourselves. And that mood is one of being with our closest friend. What is it like to be with our best friend? When we’re with our best friend, we’re completely relaxed. We’re not “on”; we’re not “on stage”; we don’t have to pretend to be anything. We don’t have to play any sort of role, do we? We have a very funny way of saying it in our Western languages, which is really very un-Buddhist, but we say, “We can be ourselves,” whatever that means.

Letting Down the Walls

All the walls can come down. All the defenses can come down when we’re with our best friend. It’s possible to be completely open to just sharing and being with this person without grasping at the person. There’s a certain joy, not a dramatic joy, but a certain joy that’s there and we don’t feel that we have to do anything. But we also have the sincere wish to be helpful to this person. We like this person in a very sincere, human way.

What we try to do, then, is to see everybody in the room in this way. We’re mixing an idea with a visual perception. Don’t just do it with your eyes closed, because then there’s the danger that there’ll be no feeling to that. The eyes need to be open; we need to actually see the people around us in a certain way. That doesn’t mean that our visual perception has changed in any way whatsoever. We get terribly confused by this word visualization and think that we have to somehow change our visual sense perception. We don’t have to do that. It’s a question of cognition in general. What sort of idea do we have or what kind of mood are we in when we’re seeing the other person?

I think the feeling to start with is one of relaxing and settling. Well to do that, the walls have to be down, don’t they? When the walls are down, then we can really be sincere. Let’s just try to do that while looking at each other.

[pause]

Then we add a little bit more tone to it with the feeling, “May I be of help.” This is a feeling of being willing to help. That’s the important component. It’s not “Oh, I have to help, what should I do? I don’t know what to do, I’m incompetent,” or anything like that. Rather than that negative trip, it’s one of willingness to be of help and openness.

[pause]

Learning to Relax

That I think is the clue, the guideline, for how to start to feel things in a sincere way. The guideline is first we have to put down the walls. Sometimes we’re afraid to feel something because we really don’t know what’s going to happen – as though we’re going to lose control. That’s this big solid “me” inside the walls. We have to relax. That’s essential.

Relaxation doesn’t mean to merely relax our muscles or to relax our tension on the physical level, although that’s part of it obviously. Rather, it means to be relaxed in our minds; and this comes from understanding, at least to some extent, the teachings on voidness or emptiness. Voidness means an absence of impossible ways of existing with regard to ourselves, everyone else, and everything that’s happening around us. No one and nothing exists “solidly,” on its own, independently of everything else and alienated from what’s going on.

On the simplest level, if we can relax our self-consciousness, our insecurity, our self-preoccupation, this gives us a clue as to what it might be like to have some level of this understanding. So again, everything always needs to fit together in the teachings. We can have some sense of this point about voidness even if we haven’t studied it deeply, because we do experience it to a certain extent with our closest friend. If we go into situations in life, setting the motivation in this way, then it works.

That means that we enter into situations being very sincere, rather than putting on a show. We’re not trying to sell ourselves, like when applying for a job. We’re not putting on some sort of act. Rather, we’re totally comfortable with everybody or anybody. This is because we are basically comfortable with ourselves. This, of course, all hinges on our understanding of self, obviously. It connects with our understanding of how the self exists – in other words, voidness. The self exists devoid of any impossible ways. “I” exist devoid of any impossible ways. So do you.

The objection could be raised, “Well, if I put down all my barriers, aren’t I vulnerable to being hurt?” I don’t think that that’s the case. If we use an example from martial arts, then, if we’re uptight, we can’t react quickly if someone lunges at us. But if the barriers of self-consciousness are down, then we’re totally attentive to what’s happening. Then it’s possible to react very, very quickly to whatever’s occurring.

Again, it’s a matter of dealing with this factor of fear, isn’t it? It’s fear that we have to overcome, since it’s fear that’s preventing us from putting down the barriers. We’re afraid that “If I put down the barriers, I’m going to get hurt.” That’s because we’re keeping the barriers up in the first place, and, by doing so, we’re actually hurting ourselves. But, we need to learn these facts through personal experience and understanding. That gets us into a whole other important topic, which is the topic of “understanding.”

Generating a Feeling Based on an Inferential Understanding

A lot of people are very turned off by some of the approaches that we see in Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism – and particularly Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhism. I’m referring here to the emphasis on logic and inferential understanding. But there’s nothing to be afraid of, here, because we do function with that type of understanding all the time. Understanding is not necessarily a heavy intellectual process. We hear the alarm clock go off in the morning and we understand that it’s time to get up. Why is it time to get up? It’s because the alarm clock has gone off. There’s a line of conscious reasoning and it’s also the way the brain works unconsciously. The line of logical reasoning for understanding that it’s time to get up is: “If the alarm clock goes off, it’s time to get up. The alarm clock has gone off. Therefore, it’s time to get up.” We can put it into a logical syllogism like that. It doesn’t have to be a heavy intellectual exercise that we go through in order to see from that sign – that’s exactly the word that we use in Tibetan – that sign or indication that it’s time to get up. The alarm clock going off is the sign that we rely on in order to understand that it’s time to get up.

Similarly, seeing somebody as our closest friend is the reliable sign or indication that enables us to understand that there’s no need to keep the barriers up. That’s because there’s nothing to be afraid of and we don’t have to put on a show for this person. How do we know that? It’s because we’ve seen a sign and inferred it logically from that. The sign is that we see this person as our best friend. So we get an inferential understanding and we derive it through simple inference, rather than through a process of heavy logic.

Being able to generate feelings is related to understanding. A lot of people are really perplexed about how to go from something being intellectual to something being felt. That’s a big problem many of us have with a Western way of thinking that separates intellect and feeling into two separate, almost unrelated things.

The way to overcome that difficulty is, first of all, to realize that feeling something has two aspects – feeling something to be true, in other words believing something to be true, and then having an emotional feeling based on that belief.  Understanding something, believing it to be true, and feeling an emotion about it follow from one other. It’s an impossible way of existing that these three are unrelated to each other.

For example, we gain an understanding of something by relying on some sort of sign. We could express the process in a logical form: “If I’m with my closest friend, I don’t have to be defensive. This person is my closest friend. Therefore, I don’t have to be defensive.” Because that understanding is based on a logical syllogism, we could perhaps call it an intellectual understanding, but that’s missing the point. The point is that, based on this understanding, we believe that it’s true that we don’t need to be defensive with this person. Based on that belief, the walls can start to come down and we can feel more relaxed. If the walls don’t come down and we don’t relax, the fault usually lies in our understanding and belief. Of course, however, there can be other external factors that are influencing us, such as tension from other things happening to us in life at that time. But I think you get my point.

The thing that we need to be able to recognize is what it means to understand something. If we can recognize what it means to understand something, then the connection between that, feeling a fact to be true, and feeling an emotion based on believing that fact is much easier to make. Let’s try to think of an example. Well, one example is the alarm clock going off. We understand “intellectually,” by a process of inference, that this means that it’s time to get up.

Now, try to focus on what it feels like to understand that it’s time to get up. What qualities do you recognize here?

Participant: (translator) He’s somehow learned that he has to get up if the alarm clock goes off and he realizes that if he gets up early enough, he goes to work easily. Otherwise, he’ll be late.

Alex: Right, but now go deeper. It’s not just about a sense of duty or something like that. That’s secondary. On a deeper level, we need to work with two main emotional issues concerning belief in what we’ve understood when we hear the alarm go off. The first is our not being willing to accept what we hear, what we understand – that we really have to get up.  That’s the first major issue. The second is making the decision to accept the truth and actually get up out of bed. Then there could be the secondary aspects of why we make that decision – because of a sense of duty, because of guilt, or because of whatever. We can make the decision for many reasons and then the point that you mentioned follows.

Participant: (transl.) It’s not just a sense of duty that he feels. But, based on his experience, he knows that if he gets up early enough, then he has time to have some minutes to relax and start the day more easily.  And so the feeling he has when getting out of bed is more positive.

Alex: This is very important, because what’s happening here is that, based on an understanding, we accept the logic that we have to get up when the alarm rings and we make the decision to get up. We understand that if we do get up, then it’s going to be a little bit more relaxed getting out of the house, rather than being frantic because we have two minutes to get everything together and run out. So, because there are certain advantages to getting up a little early and we understand those advantages, we feel comfortable in getting up. In any case, the reality is that we have to get up – whether the emotion we feel about it is resentment or comfort. We feel resentment when we think of the disadvantages of getting up – we can’t lie in our warm cozy bed any longer. And we feel comfort when we think of the advantages of getting up now.

When we look at the structure of the Buddhist teachings, they always give advantages for each point. There are advantages to having the walls down; there are advantages to seeing everybody as one’s mother, to being mindful of having a precious human life, to being mindful of impermanence, and so on. We need to understand the advantages of accepting and believing the truth of something. Again, it comes down, first, to understanding. Once we’ve understood something, however, then we still have to work with the issue of accepting it. The emotion we feel will be colored by whether or not we accept the truth of our understanding, and by how we accept it.

Accepting Something That We Understand

Acceptance is actually a very difficult issue. We might have difficulty accepting that we have to get up each morning, with our example of the alarm clock. We can know this difficulty from other examples in our life as well, such as wanting to eat a piece of chocolate. We look around the house and we can’t find any chocolate. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that there’s no chocolate in the house. Now, that might be quite difficult to accept.

For example, if we’re outside the locked door of our house and we look for our keys in all our pockets and bags, they should be in one of them. But if they’re not in any of these places, that’s a valid sign for logically concluding that we’ve lost our keys or we’ve forgotten to bring them. We’re locked out. That’s very difficult to accept, isn’t it? We frantically search again and again. Those are fairly easy examples. But, when we have to accept that there’s no solid “me” because we’ve looked all over and can’t find one – it’s not so easy.

This whole issue of going from understanding something to actually emotionally feeling it is very difficult because of the way that we conceive of the process. We look at it as if going from something intellectual to something emotional, and that the two are totally unrelated to each other. But even to conceive of the process as one of going from an understanding, which I think is a more constructive way of looking at it, to a feeling is not so easy, because of this issue of accepting what we’ve understood.

Gaining the Courage to Put Down Our Walls

So, now the question is how do we learn acceptance? Let’s go back to our easier example. How do you accept putting the walls down? Anybody?

Participant: When we understand it’s helpful, it’s easier to accept. The more we understand that it might be helpful, the easier it is to accept it.

Alex: Good. We accept putting down the walls and we actually try to do that when we understand and accept as true the advantages of putting them down. Anyone else?

Participant: To accept something, you need to experience it. So you simply try it first. Perhaps you jump into the water and you sink, but you have to have the courage at first to try it, to have this experience of sinking.

Alex: That’s true. To actually let the walls down, we need to have a great deal of courage. But even to know that it’s possible to put the walls down requires some sort of understanding to start with. That understanding comes from the experience of having been hurt so much in our relationships when we didn’t put the walls down. Based on that experience, and then based on somebody telling us and seeing in them what it’s like to have the walls down, we get the courage to try it ourselves.

So now we can paint a little stroke on the part of the picture that’s the guru here, because we get that inspiration from seeing an example of somebody who does have the walls down, which would be a proper teacher – mind you, there are many who are not proper teachers. With a proper teacher, we would see a living example of what it’s like to have the walls down. It gives us inspiration and courage to try it ourselves.

Learning to Let Down Our Walls

Participant: (transl.) As a child you don’t have these walls, but because of bad experiences, because you were mistreated, you build up these walls and therefore now, if you’re supposed to let down these walls, then this fear is still there. But now that he’s got contact with Buddhism, he tries to let these walls down, but there’s still this fear that the other could abuse his openness.

Alex: This is exactly the point that I wanted to bring up. How do we learn that putting down the walls is beneficial? How can we learn to feel it or generate it? It comes from the fact that when we experience letting down the walls, we have a direct experience of the benefits. That’s how we know it. But, the benefits don’t always come instantly. So, this first way of learning is not so easy.

The second way we can learn is, sometimes we put down the walls and we get hurt. That’s from previous experience as well. Sometimes we got hurt; we were taken advantage of. Then we need to try to understand what went wrong. Many times if we can understand what went wrong, we can correct it. In a given situation, was the problem that the walls were down, or was the problem that there was something inappropriate in the way that we were handling the situation in terms of how we conceived of ourselves?

Let’s use an example. We were with somebody and the person got angry with us. Now, we could have approached that situation in two ways, either with the walls up or the walls down. We could think, “I had the walls down, I was vulnerable and they said this angry thing to me and I got hurt.” We might also think, “Well if I had kept the walls up, I wouldn’t have been hurt.”

We have to be very clear about this, because it’s actually quite crazy the way that we’ve just formulated it. How would we not have gotten hurt if the walls were up? What would it have been like?

Actually, we would have gotten hurt whether the walls were up or down. Everything depends on how we conceive of ourselves. If somebody throws a big piece of mud at us and if we just stand there and take it and get hit in the face with it, that’s like viewing ourselves in a very solid way. But, if we’re very flexible and someone throws mud at us, we move a little bit to the side and we don’t let it hit us in the face. The angry words go right by us. The person was in a bad mood, we don’t take it personally.

That’s the key, being flexible and not taking the angry words personally, we don’t let them hit us in the face. But if we have this very solid way of looking at ourselves and we’re rigid and take everything very personally, then when the walls are down, we’re very vulnerable and everything hits us smack in the face.

But if we have that same solid sense of ME taking everything personally, then putting the walls up doesn’t protect us at all. We still take everything personally. Either that or we’re hiding behind the walls with fear and insecurity. We unconsciously get hurt or we block ourselves from feeling hurt, but inside we are feeling hurt. It’s a state of denial, but in fact we are very hurt. That’s the solid “me” cowering behind the wall. So we have to be very clear about what’s going on. What’s the cause of getting hurt? The cause of getting hurt is not about the walls being down. What causes us to get hurt is the misconception of a solid “me.”

Participant: (transl.) Perhaps she understands intellectually the problem and this thing of talking about the voidness of the solid “me.” But if the situation is there, if the feeling of being hurt is there, she can’t then apply this to the feeling and she can’t then integrate this understanding into her feelings. For example, if she gets hurt, she may know, “Okay, there’s no ego,” but all the same, she feels hurt. So this feeling of being hurt doesn’t dissolve because she thinks of it in terms of no ego.

Alex: This is true. There are stages on the path. Pain and suffering and these things don’t go away instantly. Even if we have the bare nonconceptual cognition of voidness, that doesn’t mean the end of our suffering. That bare cognition needs to permeate us slowly; it has to sink in over a long period of time, with a lot of experience, before it really eliminates suffering. There’s a big gap between being an arya – somebody who has the nonconceptual cognition of voidness – and being an arhat, somebody completely freed forever from suffering. The point is that we mustn’t expect more than what normally follows in the progression of how each individual gains liberation. It goes through stages; it’s a gradual process.

Here, we need to remember the First Noble Truth. Life is tough! That’s the First Noble Truth. Even if we understand voidness, our problems are not going to end instantly. Life is tough! Suffering doesn’t go away instantly. It’s a long gradual process. At first, we would feel hurt, but the difference would be that we wouldn’t hang on to that feeling. If we could do that, then the hurt would pass much more quickly. That’s the noticeable difference. We should then be happy with that much of a result and eventually, with more familiarity, the effect gets better. We mustn’t get discouraged with that much; we should be encouraged.

Saying “No”

There’s one other point that I want to bring up concerning letting down the walls. This is the experience that many people have that when they put the walls down, they feel that they always have to say “yes” and they can’t say “no” to anybody. Rather than being directly hurt by the other person, inadvertently they don’t take care of their own needs because they never say “no.” They get hurt indirectly. Do you recognize that one?

In that situation, we have to try to recognize that when we say “no” and when we take care of our own needs, that’s not equivalent to putting the walls back up. Obviously, we could put the walls back up, but it doesn’t have to mean putting the walls back up. We can still be totally open, totally receptive, and just say, “I’m very sorry, but I can’t do that” or “I need to rest now” and we still remain open. But, when we have this idea of this solid “me,” then the “poor me, I’m being taken advantage of” manifests and we get very upset. Or we feel, “If I ever say ‘no,’ then the other person is going to abandon “me,” therefore I’d better keep my mouth shut.” And then we direct all the hostility, guilt and anger internally, at this “me.” Again, this is all revolving around having the idea of a solid “me” – that’s the misconception that needs to be abandoned.

Responding to Others Who Have Their Walls Up

Participant: I see another thing in my life that comes up all the time. I have expectations like, “If I’ve got my walls down, then other persons should have their walls down too. There’s nothing to fear, so why don’t they let them down?” And if they have them up, I get very angry.

Alex: Two things come to mind when you say that. The first is the conversation I had on a train recently with a woman who, when I said that I was teaching about Buddhism and teaching about how to overcome selfishness, she said, “What’s wrong with being selfish? If everybody’s selfish, then if I’m not selfish, I’m just being stupid!” It’s the same thing you’re talking about here; if everybody else has their walls up, if I don’t have my walls up, I’m just being stupid. My answer to her was, “Well, by that logic, if everybody else is going around and shooting people, and you don’t go around and shoot people, you’re being stupid.” So, obviously, we have to be a little bit more objective about the benefits and faults of shooting people and of having the walls up.

The second thing that comes to mind is the example of my mother. My mother used to get very upset watching the news on TV. She would see the news and hear about all the murders, all the robberies and rapes that had happened that day, and she would get very angry, “Why are people acting like this?”

Now, I think that the issue here is the issue of self-righteousness. We can have self-righteousness in a very outspoken type of way. My mother wasn’t like that. But we can also have it in a much more subtle way. This is what I think she had, a more subtle form of “I’m so wonderful and everybody else is so bad.” Again, I think it’s all revolving around this misconception of a solid “me.” In other words, we identify with acting in a beneficial way, like having the walls down or not going around and killing and robbing people. We identify a solid “me” with that. We use it to fortify our identity in an attempt to make this “me” secure. Then we use the whole mechanism of the strong rejection of others who don’t act like we do, to try to make that “me” less threatened and even more secure.  

We can understand how we could respond differently with the following example. We drink water out of a glass, like this. Our dog doesn’t drink water like that. So if there are a lot of dogs and they’re all drinking water by licking it up with their tongues from bowls on the floor, does that make us feel self-righteous that we’re drinking the right way and they’re all bad because they’re drinking in the wrong way? No. Why doesn’t that make us uptight?

On the other hand, why does it make us uptight if we are open and everybody around us is not open? What’s the difference between that and our drinking water in a different way from an animal? I think the difference is in terms of identifying a solid “me” with a certain position. It doesn’t matter the way that we drink, it’s trivial. So we don’t care how the dog drinks. But this solid “me” – “I’m trying so hard to be open and so hard to be ‘good’.....”

Now we have to paint another little stroke on another part of the painting here, with regard to the point that it makes us upset when others are not behaving like we are. This is the paint stroke concerning this whole question of “should” – “I should do this.” 

Not Caring about What Others Say or Do

Participant: (transl.) He says there’s another approach. If you want to be a respected person and somebody says to you, “You’re an idiot,” then you get angry. But if you don’t want to be a respected person and somebody tells you ten times, “You’re an idiot,” then it doesn’t matter for you. Also if somebody wants to take your wife away for some reason and you want to keep your wife, then you’ll start to fight. But if you think, “Okay, if my wife wants to go away, that’s okay. I accept this,” then, because you don’t have the wish to keep her, you don’t start a fight.

Alex: We have to differentiate two truths here. We call them the ultimate and the conventional truths or the deepest and the conventional truths. From the point of view of the deepest truth, yes, we try not to be attached to things, by seeing that things don’t have a solid existence. But, from the viewpoint of conventional truth, there are “things to be accepted and things to be rejected.” From the conventional viewpoint, it’s more beneficial to be open than to be closed and it’s more beneficial to protect our wife than to let anybody violate her and take her. That doesn’t contradict the deeper truth that we’re not attached. We need to be careful not to confuse those two truths.

Concluding Exercise

It’s time to bring to a close our session for this evening. Let’s end with a little bit of experiential practice, and again let’s do this by looking around and being open. We want to be open, not in the sense of a solid “me” with the walls down and any mud that’s thrown at me ... whop! right in the face. But rather, the walls are down and there’s nothing solid that we have to worry about that’s going to be hurt. But obviously we are here. We react to whatever is going on without having to be defensive in a strong grasping type of way, with fear. Where does fear come from? Fear comes from thinking that there’s a solid “me” who can get hurt. Then, of course, we’re afraid.

The conventional truth is that, if somebody throws something at us, we move aside. If they’re making too much of a demand on us, we say “no.” Conventionally, we handle such things with discriminating awareness or the capacity to make objective distinctions, rather than with subjective self-righteous judgments.

Participant: If you let down the walls does this have something to do with flexibility, so that whether we hear good things or bad things, we still want to help? Does being able to do this mean that we have flexibility?

Alex: Exactly. Only when the walls are down can we truly be flexible and spontaneous and all these other things. If the walls are up, we can’t really respond freely at all. Then, we’re very rigid. We’re walking around with all these walls around us.

Participant: Having the walls down does mean to a great extent being flexible. But it doesn’t only mean flexibility, does it? To have the walls down doesn’t only mean to be flexible?

Alex: Exactly. It doesn’t only mean being flexible. It also means being able to really relate appropriately. It means many things. Everything is interconnected. We can also be more sensitive when we put down the walls. If we’re more sensitive, we’re more flexible. If we’re more sincere, it makes the other person feel more relaxed with us. It’s many things. They’re all interconnected. If the walls are down and we’re actually seeing what’s going on with other people, it’s much easier to have the discriminating awareness to see clearly what to do. Discrimination and skillful means are said to naturally arise when the walls are down.

Even if we can’t generate this type of feeling of the walls being down based on an understanding of voidness, we can generate it on the basis of seeing everybody as our best friend. Why? It’s because various methods of traveling can lead to the same destination, various causes can lead to a same result that we want to achieve, such as putting the walls down. That follows from the teachings on the voidness of cause and effect. So, there are many different ways of reaching an understanding and there are many different levels of understanding, all of which can be useful.

So, let’s try to generate this openness in light of compassion; seeing everybody as being our closest friend. And then if we can also generate this openness in light of a correct understanding of voidness, that will be even more helpful. The two are always connected – compassion and wisdom. Remember? It’s the image of two wings.

Taking Responsibility for Others

Participant: (transl.) But if you see the other one as your best friend, then this means that you have to take full responsibility for the other one and therefore, from this point of view, she’s afraid.

Alex: Why are we afraid? Because of a solid “me” – “I’m going to fail.” So that means we have to paint another stroke in our picture, also on the side of the voidness of cause and effect. The standard example that Buddha used was that a bucket of water is not filled by the first or the last drop of water; it’s filled by the combination of all the drops. When we try to help somebody to overcome their suffering, it’s not 100% totally dependent on just what we do. That’s an over-inflation of “me.” The result comes from the combination of many, many, many causes.

On the one hand, we don’t say that we’re solely responsible in the sense that if they don’t get better then we’re guilty of being a failure. But, on the other hand, we also don’t go to the other extreme, which is to do nothing. We contribute as best as we can. But whether they are going to overcome their suffering or not, for the most part depends on what they do.

Again, it’s a topic that allows us to put little brush strokes on the painting we’re making, But we’ll go deeper and deeper into it – this whole idea of “I should” – tomorrow. “I should do this. I should help them. I should be able to solve all their problems, and so on. And if it doesn’t work and I don’t solve their problems, then I’m guilty of having done something wrong.”

And that naturally leads to the discussion of God, from which our whole way of thinking of “should” comes from. We imagine that, like God, we should be omnipotent and be able to accomplish anything we want to, by our own power alone. We’ll get into that tomorrow.

So let’s end with a few minutes of being open, no fear, and then let’s follow that with the wish, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everybody could be open without fear. May everyone become like this. May I be able to help everyone become like this.”

Remember, we have to always ask ourselves what are we afraid of, why are we afraid and, of course, who is it that’s afraid.