The Role of Ethics on the Path of Social Service
As you already mentioned, Kalmykia’s the homeland of the great Geshe Wangyal, who introduced me to the living tradition of Buddhism. So it’s always a great honor and pleasure to be back in his homeland.
Today, I’ve been asked to speak about the role of ethics on the path of social service, which obviously is a very important topic if we wish to engage in various types of professions for helping others. Whether it is in actual social services or in education or in healthcare, ethics is a very important aspect of it. Obviously, when we’re trying to help others, we need to refrain from causing any harm and try our best to assist them in whatever way we can even though we might not really know the best methods. Because each person that we try to help, of course, is an individual, and what might be appropriate for one person might not necessarily suit another. So working in any type of social, helper profession requires a great deal of knowledge, sensitivity to others, and the basis for all of that is ethics.
Buddhism speaks about ethics in terms of ethical self-discipline. In order to actually put a system of ethics into practice, obviously we need discipline. So the two are intimately connected. And this discipline is not like being a policeman or policewoman in which we are enforcing the discipline or law on others, but rather we are directing that discipline to ourselves, which of course requires overcoming laziness and indifference and all sorts of obstacles to being disciplined. That means that even if we know what are the ethical principles that we need to follow, and we have a motivation to actually follow them, still we need to overcome any difficulties we might have into actually putting it into practice. So this topic of ethics is a very large topic, and there are many, many different aspects that we need to train in in order to effectively put it into practice.
Buddhism differentiates three types of ethical self-discipline. The first is the discipline to refrain from destructive behavior. Destructive behavior is not limited to actual physical actions, but also to our speech—the way we communicate to others—and also includes our attitude, our way of thinking, as well. We could just go through the routine of helping somebody, but in our minds have all sorts of nasty thoughts about them. So that also requires ethical discipline to refrain from that.
The second type of discipline is the discipline to engage in constructive behavior, and this is focused primarily on what we do ourselves in order to train our abilities to be able to help others. This means studying, training, doing all the various things that are necessary in order to be well qualified in our profession. That means that we need to keep up to date in terms of our career and not just rely on what we might have learned many years ago. That requires a great deal of discipline, actually, in order to keep further studies going and keep learning the new methods that develop in our field. That’s actually not so easy, because if we’re working all day and helping others it’s quite exhausting and this keeping-up-to-date work is what we have to do after hours.
The third type of ethical self-discipline is the discipline actually to engage in helping others.
So refraining from destructive behavior, engaging in constructive, educational behavior, and actually helping others. These are the three areas of ethical self-discipline that Buddhism emphasizes, and I think that this is quite relevant to all areas of social service. Let’s look a little bit more in depth about these three.
Refraining from destructive behavior. What is destructive behavior? Destructive behavior is explained in the Buddhist teachings as a type of action—whether it’s with our body, our speech, or our way of thinking—that is motivated by a disturbing emotion or a disturbing attitude. In terms of how it affects others, we can’t really say for sure, because sometimes what we do even with a good motivation might harm somebody else—because we make a mistake, for example; we try to help them, but they don’t really take our advice; this type of thing.
So really what we can say for sure is that it’s destructive if our motivation is destructive or disturbed. We may, for example, act under the influence of anger. For instance, we are annoyed with how somebody is behaving or leading their life, and so in trying to help them as a social worker, we yell at them: “Don’t act like that! Don’t take drugs!” or whatever it might be. But there’s anger behind our way of dealing with them. This not only prevents us from thinking clearly in terms of what would be of best help to the other, but other people are sensitive, they can sense our anger, and they usually respond very poorly if we’re angry with them. This is not so easy, because social work requires a great deal of patience. We try to help others, we give them good advice, and so on, and they don’t take it. And we get frustrated, of course, because we’re not patient, and in losing our patience it’s very easy to get angry with them and scold them, yell at them. Or if we’re in health services: “Why aren’t you taking your medicine? What’s wrong with you?” This type of thing. Very easy to lose our temper.
In such situations we really need to develop compassion—that this poor person is confused; they are in such a difficult state they can’t even take good advice. We can’t force other people to take our advice. The only thing that we can actually work on is ourselves to find a more skillful method, to see how can we actually convince this person to change their ways? But if we are overwhelmed with anger and frustration and impatience, that really becomes quite a big obstacle to thinking clearly what would be a better way of communicating to this person?
The second type of disturbing emotion is attachment and desire. We’re all human beings, after all. We have desires. We’re attracted to some people. That could be a sexual attraction to some of the people we’re trying to help as our clients, or it could be a motherly or fatherly type of attraction to a small child: “Oh how sweet, how dear,” and so on. In either case, that could prevent us from being rather strict with this person, which sometimes we need to be when we’re trying to help them. Or because we’re so attracted to this person, in a sense we consciously or unconsciously make them dependent on us so that we can spend more time with them. This we need to avoid. Of course that’s not so easy, because, as I said, we are humans, and of course just as we lose our temper, we also find certain people attractive.
What’s always emphasized in Buddhist training is to develop equanimity, which means not being under the influence of either attraction or repulsion toward anyone that we’re trying to help, or ignoring some people that do need help (that’s the third variant here), but rather to have an open, equal attitude toward everyone. That means open, equal attitude to those that are easy to help, those that are difficult to help, those that are quite nice to be with, those that are unpleasant to be with. The method for being able to develop that is to see that we’re all equal: Everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy, the same as me. Everybody wants to be paid attention to, taken care of, just as I do. Nobody wants to be ignored.
Actually, what came to my mind is that there are some people that just want to be left alone. They don’t want our help. These are the most difficult. And that’s very challenging, not to feel rejected and taking it personally. Particularly I’m thinking of old people in nursing homes that aren’t very cooperative in terms of taking their medicine or doing various other things that they need to do. But even if they don’t want our help and they want to be left alone, still we need to have that equal attitude toward them and not just ignore them.
Even stronger than just thinking: “Everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy” is to look at everybody as if they were our relative or closest friend. This person in the nursing home could be my mother or my father, and I wouldn’t want to ignore them or treat them badly. We can also think in terms of: “Someday I’m going to be in the nursing home and I wouldn’t want somebody to ignore me or treat me badly.” Or if we’re dealing with children, “This could be my child.” Or if it is somebody our own age, “This could be my brother, my sister, my close friend.” This helps us to develop more of an equal, open attitude that everybody is equally important.
Another disturbing state of mind is naivety. Naivety means that, for example, we’re too busy to really find out all the details about someone that we are working with, and so, because of our unawareness, our naivety about their situation, we really don’t handle them very well. Remember, everybody is an individual and everybody has their own story, their own background, and it’s not very easy when we have to deal with so many clients during the day that we don’t really have time to pay attention to any one of them. However, whatever type of work situation we’re in, however much time that we have to deal with each individual, it’s important to try to learn as much about this person as possible. The more we learn about somebody, the better able we are to help them. But if we don’t care, or we’re too tired, or we’re lazy, then our ability to help somebody is very, very much limited. That means that while we’re working we need to not always think in terms of me and my own personal problems, but really be concerned about the other person. So that involves refraining from thinking and so on in a way that is going to make our work ineffective, in a sense that’s destructive, that’s harmful to our work. If I just am thinking, “Oh, I have a problem at home with this and that,” and then you don’t pay attention to your client.
There are many states of mind and emotional states that can render our work less effective. Aside from these disturbing emotions that I just mentioned, there’s also a situation that some of have of being overemotional. If we are overemotional and just overwhelmed with strong feelings, let’s say when we’re dealing with people who have been injured in an accident and so on, and we ourselves start crying and so on, we can’t possibly help this person. That requires a very delicate balance between not going to two extremes. One is being emotionally cold, not feeling anything. And the other is overemotional reaction to things, that we can’t actually do our work then.
To help us from just going to the extreme of being cold and not feeling anything, we need to remember that everybody responds warmly to human contact. They don’t want to be treated by somebody that’s like a machine. A smile, just holding their hand, let’s say, if they are in a hospital bed—these sort of things add a human, warm touch that is very important for helping others.
On the other hand, if we are overemotional then we need to realize that being overemotional really is being concerned just about me: “Oh, I can’t take it. It’s too much. This is so awful.” Basically we’re thinking in terms of me. We’re not really thinking of the other one. We’re thinking about how I feel in response to it. If our child gets hurt and we become hysterical and are just crying and crying, we can’t even help the child, and in fact it frightens the child. We need to keep calm in order to be able to calm down our child and think clearly what we need to do to help them (let’s say they cut themselves and they’re bleeding very badly).
All these points that I’m mentioning now fit in the category of the ethical self-discipline to engage in constructive behavior. In other words, we need to train ourselves in these methods that will help us to not go to these types of extremes that we’ve just been discussing. Constructive behavior is not just continuing education but also working on ourselves to be able to develop the emotional skills as well, to be able to help others in an effective, balanced way. And Buddhism offers a wide variety of methods that can help us in this area.
In order to engage in the third type of ethical self-discipline, of actually helping others, we need to, of course, overcome laziness. Laziness has many aspects to it. One is being distracted by other things. “My favorite television program is on, so I would rather watch that, because I really like it, than getting up and helping you,” for example. Or being distracted by things that are fairly trivial is a form of laziness. “I’d rather lie in bed a little bit longer than get up and go to work.” This is laziness, isn’t it?
Then another form of laziness is procrastination, putting things off till later, not doing them now. If we’re involved in any type of work, I think that you know that work tends to pile up. More and more comes. It doesn’t stop. If we don’t take care of things when they come in—let’s say to our computer, whether it’s email, or onto our desk, or whatever—then it just piles up more and more and more, and afterwards it’s almost like a tsunami of work sweeps over us and overwhelms us because there’s just so much to do. If we are going to be in a busy, demanding profession, we can’t put things off till tomorrow. We need to take care of things day by day by day.
Now of course this requires what we call enthusiastic perseverance. Perseverance—to just continue, even if we are tired; we have to finish. But there’s a certain point where we really have to take a rest, because we’re no longer dealing with our work or with others effectively; we’re just too tired. One of the important principles in being able to sustain our efforts over a long time is to know when we need to take a rest and actually take that rest without feeling guilty. But that of course means not going to the extreme of treating ourselves like a baby and taking too much rest. That’s a form of laziness: just taking a rest because it’s more pleasant than working.
Taking a rest also requires knowing ourselves well enough to know what will help us to relax and regenerate our energy. For some it may just be taking a nap or going to sleep. For others it might be going outside and getting a little bit of fresh air, a little bit of a walk. For others it might be watching a film or television. For some it might be cooking. There are so many things that each of us might find relaxing—reading, whatever it might be. It doesn’t matter. The point is to know ourselves and to know when we need to take a rest and what will help us to relax, and in addition, when we’ve rested enough, to have the discipline to get back up and go back to work.
One of the things that prevents us from going back to work is that: “I just don’t feel like it.” For that we need to work on our motivation. We are trying to help others. What we are doing is of help to others. If we were in need of help, we wouldn’t like it if the person that we were relying on was too busy, or too tired, or had to finish watching the television program before they came to help us. Just as we wouldn’t like for somebody else that we relied on for help to act like that, everybody feels the same way with respect to us if they’re depending on us. This is a very important Buddhist method, which is to put ourselves in the other person’s place and see how we would like it if somebody treated us the way that we were treating them.
We’ve dealt with two of the forms of laziness, the laziness of just being distracted to trivial things, laziness of putting things off till later. The third type of laziness is feelings of inadequacy: “I’m just not good enough. I can’t do this. It’s too much.” This is a big obstacle. Now in fact we might not know what to do to help somebody. That happens. In fact it might happen quite frequently when we are in social services, for example. But to feel that: “I’m inadequate. I’m no good” and to beat ourselves psychologically and emotionally, this is not going to help at all, because this is actually a form of laziness. It’s lazy in the sense that we don’t even try harder; we just conclude: “I’m not good enough.”
We are not Buddhas, at least not yet, and so of course we don’t know what is best for others. We make mistakes. We’re humans. But the point is to keep trying, not to give up out of laziness. And consult others, if others are available, to give us advice on how to help if we can’t come up with something that’s effective. Although we need to take responsibility to help the others in our care, we also need to avoid the extreme of feeling that: “I am the holy savior and I’m going to save everybody.” Because that easily deviates into an unconscious drive to make everybody dependent on me and grateful to me because I have saved them, and we become jealous and envious if somebody else helps them and it wasn’t me who did that. But if our motivation is really that the other person be benefitted and helped, then it doesn’t matter who helps them. The point is for them to get over their problem. And if we find that we are not—I mean objectively that we’re not—really able to help this person, it’s very important not to feel proud and let our pride prevent us from recommending them to go to somebody else that we think could help them better than we can.
So reaffirming our motivation is a very important method emphasized over and again in Buddhism. Here our motivation in being in any type of social work is that the other person be helped with their problem, be free from whatever their problem might be. And it doesn’t mean me, that I have to necessarily be the one to do that, although, as I said, we do take responsibility: “I’m going to try as best to help as I can.”
Ethics depends very much on having what we call a caring attitude: “I care about the effect of my behavior on others.” It’s not that I’m just doing a job and earning a salary and I don’t care, really, about others or about whether what I do is helpful or not. And we also have to care about the effect of our behavior on ourselves. This caring attitude is based on really understanding, and taking seriously, cause and effect. We act in a certain way, with a certain type of motivation—it’s going to have a certain type of effect, and we are fully convinced that there is an effect. That’s what it means to be serious about it and to care. What we do really does have an effect on others and it has an effect on me as well.
So when we’re engaged in this ethical discipline to help others, the third type of ethical discipline, then here most importantly we need to have this caring attitude. But the caring attitude is also behind engaging in constructive behavior, this type of ethical discipline. “I care about being effective in my work, therefore I will have the discipline to continue my education and training,” for example. And this caring attitude is also behind the ethical discipline to refrain from destructive behavior. “Because I care about the effect of my behavior on others and myself, I don’t want to cause harm.” More specifically: “I don’t want to cause harm by acting under the influence of anger and attraction and naivety and jealousy,” and all these sort of things. Pride: “Even though I don’t know how to help, I pretend that I do.”
To have this caring attitude, we need to have a basic sense of values, ethical values, and a sense of respect for good qualities and those who have them. In other words, we look up to those who are excellent in our field of helping others—whether we think of Mother Theresa, or whoever we think—and we have great admiration and respect for such a person, and this is our model. It’s very important to have some sort of figure that gives us inspiration in our field, that we can look up to and acts as our model. It doesn’t matter whether or not we’ve actually met the person. But we look up to this person because we have a sense of values. We consider the way that they have lived their lives is something that is valuable, that I respect. And in addition, we realize that we have all the basic working materials to become like that. This is what is referred to as Buddha-nature factors in the Buddhist teachings. “I have a body. I have an ability to communicate. I have a heart, feelings. I have an intellect: I can understand things, figure things out. I have abilities. I’m able to learn.” So we have all these qualities within ourselves. These are our working materials. And so we realize that we can actually become like these inspiring figures. So we have respect for ourselves, a sense of self-dignity, and that enables us to really care about the effect of how we act and to exercise ethical self-discipline. It’s this feeling that: “Of course I can always do better. Of course I can help.” And we consider that a positive value.
So these are some of my thoughts, based on the Buddhist teachings, of the role of ethics on the path of social service. If this is the type of field that you’re going into in your studies, this is a wonderful opportunity to really do something positive, to make a great contribution with your life. Doing this type of work makes life very meaningful and worthwhile because we’re actually benefitting others. Back in Berlin, in Germany, where I live, I have a few students who are engaged in this type of work. One of my students works in a home, a facility for people who are extremely mentally disabled—Down’s syndrome, these type of children—taking care of these children, helping them with their lives. Another one of my students is a nurse taking care of elderly disabled people. And these are wonderful occupations. They require, of course, a great deal of patience, a great deal of discipline, but very worthwhile. And, of course, a strong sense of ethics. So I admire you very much if this is the direction that you’re going in in your lives.
We have time for questions if you would like, or discussion.
Professor Petr Tsedenovich Bitkeev: Dear students, today I want to meet here a sincere student of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, our spiritual teacher Dr. Alexander Berzin. Alexander Berzin is our spiritual teacher. Today he gave a very accurate lecture, because today our world suffers a lot because of we let go of ethical discipline in our life, in society, with our friends, and it actually appears in all different spheres. And so I really liked today’s lecture. And I would like to say a few words, because your lecture showed that under different considerations we need to act properly, and really two things: Firstly, we all in ourselves have different qualities, like motivation, ability, friendly attitude, readiness to help. And vice versa: if a person is selfish and thinks only of himself and doesn’t think of others. So this is what we think, what we can see now in the world.
When a tsunami in East Asia happened, and in Russia… The whole point is that in these situations people often think only about themselves and don’t think about others. And if that was not the case, then there would much less people harmed during all these cataclysms. For instance, if there is some sort of natural disaster and people are ethical and know each other, then they—like in Japan—they don’t steal, let’s say. On TV we saw that here rich people are living and the door is open and nobody steals, nobody tries to take something, because they really have created a high sense of ethics. And this is what we saw on TV. Some people, when the tsunami happened, were trying to escape, and he was trying to help other people, but actually all there died.
So we have different situations like that in our life. And I remember the words of my uncle, lharamba Bovaev, who was a great teacher, who wrote that God is not somebody whom we worship, but it’s when you avoid destructive behavior and you act constructively, and this is the basis. And these principles also our teacher Alexander Berzin spoke about today.
I knew Alexander Berzin probably 20 years when first great teachers came here. First of them was Bakula Rinpoche, after that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, then Alexander Berzin. He gave lectures, and people noticed that his lectures were very meaningful, very accurate, but also methodologically it was very accurate and very close to the situation of our society and personal situation of every person. And that’s really very valuable. At that time he was young and he had no gray hair and many people liked him. Many people followed him like he is a really great guru.
One year ago, Alexander Berzin was invited here and came and visited Kalmykia, and he participated in some international conference on Buddhism. At this conference many great scientists took part from Moscow, from Saint Petersburg, from different cities of Russia, Mongolia and others. My son, Mingyan Bitkeev, won the grant, who is also a follower of Alexander Berzin, and on the basis of this grant he created some organization. And so this conference was held, and materials of this conference were published in the book of the conference, and so I decided with him to publish some materials, including photos of Alexander Berzin. Here we can see photos of different participants of the conference, including Alexander Berzin, and on the last page we can see his own photo. And I would like, if you do not object, to give this magazine to Alexander Berzin as a sign of my deep respect and wish him to be cooperative in the future so you and your instructions inspire our generation and next young generation. Do you agree?
So here you can see the photo. His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And here is your photo together with…
Alex: Geshe Lhakdor.
Professor Bitkeev: Probably it would be interesting for you, our spiritual teacher. I deeply respect Alexander Berzin and his concern about Kalmykia. Come as soon as possible
Alex: I will.
Professor Bitkeev: I think the translation was very accurate, but it also very impressive. Thank you.
Alex: Thank you. So some questions, please.
Question: I would like to thank our deeply respected professor, Alexander Berzin. I visited his lectures in the beginning of the ’90s, and thank you very much that you come. And I am remembering old Geshe Wangyal, your spiritual mentor, and I learned that his favorite meditation was on death and impermanence. It was one of the main practices that he did. And I would like you to comment on his expression that: “Life is a preparation for death.” Do you agree with that?
Alex: So the question is about Geshe Wangyal’s topic that he emphasized, that life is a preparation for death.
In the Buddhist practice, we speak a great deal about having a precious human rebirth, in which we are free from all sorts of terrible conditions that would prevent us from really working on ourselves and improving ourselves in a spiritual manner. And we learn to appreciate how rich our lives are with opportunities to be able to study and practice. When we realize how rare that is compared to so many others—not only people, but animals—who can’t do very much to improve themselves, then we are moved to try to make our life meaningful, to take advantage of the opportunities that we have, not waste our life.
Death meditation focuses on the fact that death will come for sure to all of us. The reason for dying is that we were born. The actual final cause of death is just the condition, the circumstance that brings it about; but the reason we die is because we were born. If we weren’t born, we wouldn’t die. But none of us know for sure when our death will come. We can die at any time. We don’t have to be sick. We don’t have to be old. You can be hit by a truck at any time, obviously.
And we think in terms of: “What will be of help at the time of my death?” If we’ve spent our whole life trying to build up as much material wealth, as much money, as possible, this is not going to be of help at all at the time of death. No matter how famous we are, that’s not going to help us. Even having all our loved ones around us is not going to really help us at the time of death. In Buddhism we say, “You’re born alone and you die alone.” This is the fact of life.
The only thing that will be of help to us, a comfort to us, at the time of death is if we have led a meaningful life, if we have taken full advantage of this precious human life that we’ve had. So that doesn’t mean that we have been a tourist of the world and we can list all the places that we’ve seen, but rather what positive qualities, what positive habits, have I developed and reinforced more and more? This is in terms of future lives. Buddhism believes in rebirth. And the type of talents that we’ll have, the basic features of our personality, all of these are based on the habits that we’ve built up in previous life. For instance, in this life it will affect the type of person that we’ll be in our next lifetime, if we have the fortune to be reborn as a human.
The spiritual path is very long. It requires a tremendous amount of time and effort to overcome all of our disturbing emotions and confusion and selfishness, and so on. And it’s unreasonable to imagine that we’ll complete that task just in this lifetime; it would be very nice, but not so likely that that will happen. So this lifetime is preparation, in a sense, of being able to continue on the spiritual path. We want to build up more and more positive qualities, more understanding, and so on, so that we have an even better basis in the next lifetimes to go further in our spiritual development.
This is a fairly strict Buddhist understanding of this statement that this life is a preparation for death (meaning death and what will follow). But many of us don’t really understand or believe in rebirth. Still this statement that our life is preparation for death has meaning, because the real question that many of us face as we get older is: What am I going to leave behind? What has my contribution been to making this a better world, a better place for future generations? It could be that we have produced children, and educated them, and they will carry on in the future. That’s one level. But we can also think on a larger scale than our family and think in terms of all the various people that I might have helped, either directly or indirectly, with my life. If we can die with peace of mind, with a feeling that I have really led a meaningful life, I have made some contribution, a positive contribution, to the world, to the future, whether my own future or the world’s future or both, then we can die with peace of mind and no regrets. So in an even more immediate sense, how we’ve led our life is going to affect very much our state of mind when we die. Are we going to die in a state of fear, a state of panic, or a state of calmness and satisfaction that my life has been worthwhile?
This is one Buddhist exercise, which is to imagine that you’re going to die in the next few minutes. Do you have any regrets about your life? Do you feel that you’ve spent your life in a worthwhile way? Because we can die at any time, it’s important to be emotionally prepared for it to come at any time and we don’t have any regrets.
Question: Are there any Buddhist methods that can help us to deal with such, I guess, destructive states of mind as suspiciousness?
Alex: Suspiciousness? Let me think.
Translator: Like a lot of prejudice.
Alex: By suspiciousness do you mean prejudice? Suspicious: “I wonder is this person going to hurt me or harm me?” Is that what you mean by suspicious?
Participant: Something like oversensitivity. Something like that. Hypersensitive.
Participant: Like premonitions.
Alex: Right. Premonitions. Hypersensitivity. That goes in the direction of paranoia, always being: “People are against me. I wonder really what are their intentions,” and so on. There are two aspects here. One is the insecurity that drives us to always be worried that somebody is against me, somebody is going to hurt me. It’s based on insecurity. And the other aspect is hypersensitivity, overreacting.
Now, to overcome insecurity, there are many levels at which we can deal with that. One would be just generally having confidence in our ability to deal with whatever happens in life. What I find very helpful is the example of Buddha Shakyamuni. “Not everybody liked the Buddha, so what do I expect for myself? Do I expect that everybody is going to like me?” That’s totally unrealistic. It’s impossible to please everybody. Buddha couldn’t do it, so I shouldn’t expect that I’m going to be able to please everybody and everybody is going to like me. I try my best—I have a good intention—and whether they like it or they don’t like it, that’s their problem. I find that that’s very helpful. And of course the more that we train, the more experience we get as you get older, and in general you feel a little bit more secure. When you are a young person, a teenager, it’s quite natural to be even more insecure in terms of wanting to get approval, people liking you, and so on.
We need to reaffirm the good qualities that we have. That doesn’t mean denying or ignoring shortcomings that we have, but if we overemphasize these shortcomings then we get very, very insecure. But nobody has only shortcomings; we all have some good qualities, and it’s important to always remind ourselves of them. It doesn’t mean to be proud about it and arrogant, but it means to have some self-confidence.
Being oversensitive, overreacting, getting so upset about this or that—again, we need to think in terms of: “This is of no help to anybody.” It disables us from being able to deal with life, and it makes everybody around us very uncomfortable. The more that we think of others, in any type of situation that we have, the more considerate we’ll be, the more calm we’ll be, in terms of the way that we respond emotionally to things. The example that’s often used is a mother. A mother can be very upset about something, but if the children need to be taken care of—you have to make dinner for them—you overcome being so upset and you actually do what you need to do to help them.
Question: To purify our consciousness and to achieve the situation in which our mind is open, we have to develop renunciation at the subtle level. Is it right or not quite right interpretation?
Alex: Do we need to develop renunciation to develop ourselves? Yes, certainly.
Renunciation in Buddhism means a determination to be free of problems and their causes, which implies the willingness to give them up. So in this example of insecurity and overreacting, then, we need to, in a sense, renounce those things: these are things that I want to work on; these are things that I want to get rid of.
Now these are not things that are easy to give up. Our desires. We have longing desire and attraction: “Ooh, I want to find the perfect partner,” and so on. These sort of things are very, very attractive, and we think that this is going to bring us ultimate happiness and that’s something that I can actually achieve, but we need to be realistic. Perfect partner—the prince or the princess on the white horse—unfortunately that’s a fairy tale and doesn’t refer to anything real; nobody is like that. So, although it’s a little bit painful, we have to put a pin in the balloon of that fantasy and pop it, like stopping believing in Father Christmas, and renounce that. Determine to be free from this syndrome of always projecting onto someone that they’re the perfect prince or princess and then getting angry with them when they don’t live up to this impossible ideal. And we renounce these things because we understand that they only bring us suffering and problems.
So renunciation is of course very, very important, a very central theme in the Buddhist training. It doesn’t mean that we have to give up having loving relationships or give up ice cream. It doesn’t mean that. It means giving up suffering and the causes of suffering.
Question: My question not about Buddhism exactly, but about the way of life, because for very long periods we lived—I mean nomadic people—a nomadic way of life. We were in some kibitkas, and never knew about what cities are. And now life has suddenly changed: our moving here, in the standard flats. And we see that we’ve broken up with nature, and it has affected our consciousness, affected our perception, our emotions, because we see that the relationships between relatives has become weaker—how we suddenly don’t understand each other very well because we’ve got television, many distractions, and many such kind of things. Can Buddhism answer this question?
Alex: That’s a very good question.
Translator: Should I translate first?
Alex: Yes. Please translate into Russian. And, if you don’t know, kibitka are these large carts that had tents on them that people lived in as they were nomads, wandering around the steppes.
As nomads going from pasture to pasture on the steppes, the grasslands, living in these kibitkas, these tents on oxcarts, as you pointed out, the family and the community that traveled together had a very close relationship—a close relationship with each other, a close relationship with nature and with the animals. And so the values that were necessary for that type of life emphasized harmony, that everybody had to work together and understand the responsibilities that were necessary for life. And now, in our settled way of life, of course this is very different.
In Buddhism, however, we do have various ways of helping to overcome the shortcomings that could arise with the type of lives that we lead now. There’s a great deal of emphasis on appreciating the interdependence that we have with each other. It might not be as obvious as when we are nomads on the steppe. But one exercise that we have is to look at everything in our home and to think of all the work that went into producing this and all the people that were involved in its production, going all the way back to the elements of nature. Even the food—not only who grew it, but who transported it? Who built the roads? Who built the trucks that transported it? Where did the metal come from for the trucks? Where did the rubber, where did the petroleum come from? If we cook with gas or electricity, where did that come from? All the people involved with that. And in this way we appreciate the fact that we’re totally dependent on the work of an unbelievable amount of others.
And also, the way that we act affects the environment. This is becoming more and more obvious with global warming. It affects the wildlife. Fish are becoming more and more rare. The only difference here between understanding this when we are traveling as a group of nomads and when we are living our city life, our settled life here, is that on the steppe this interdependence is much more obvious, it’s much more immediate, so it’s easier to understand. Now, this interdependence is still… the fact is still true; it’s just that it’s not so obvious. We really have to analyze and think about it. So on the basis of analysis, thought, then we can develop this sense of responsibility that is necessary for the survival of the whole planet in harmony, not just the small unit traveling on the steppe.
I think what’s really quite wonderful and helpful is that here in Kalmykia you have this tradition of the nomads on the steppe, and so the fact that you actually survived as a people over such a long period of difficult history demonstrates that you are a people that really know how to work together and to live together for the benefit of the whole society. So this gives a sense of self-worth of the whole society and of being a member of that type of society with this type of heritage.
This brings another aspect of ethical self-discipline that I didn’t mention, which is consideration of the effect of our behavior on those that we respect. In other words, if we are a member, let’s say, of Kalmyk society, then if I act in a criminal way, in a very selfish, horrible way, how does that reflect on Kalmyk people in general? It gives a very bad impression of Kalmyks. And so because I want to avoid that, because I have such a wonderful feeling and pride (in a positive sense) about my heritage, then of course I don’t want to do something that will cause people to have a bad impression of it. This, then, is something that can also help us to work together in more harmony and try to work into the modern world in a successful way all together.
And of course we can expand this beyond just Kalmykia. I’m a great fan of science fiction, and so I think in terms of other types of life forms, intelligent life forms, on other planets in the universe. And what would they think of human beings, this life form, if we destroy our planet because of our selfishness? They would think we’re really a lower life form. And so we need to show that as human beings we can manage not to destroy our world but somehow resolve our differences and live in harmony. So although that’s science fiction, nevertheless it can be a helpful way of thinking.
So that brings us to the end of our time together. I want to thank you very much for your kind attention.
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