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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > Exercises For Integrating One's Life > Session Two: The Conceptual Framework – The Wish To Be Happy and Meditation on the Guru

Exercises For Integrating One's Life

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, November 2008

Session Two: The Conceptual Framework – The Wish To Be Happy and Meditation on the Guru

Unedited Transcript
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We’ve been speaking a little bit about some methods that help us to integrate our lives. Actually, we’ve just been speaking about the background from which these practices derive. If we look at the larger Buddhist context, then we are aiming to ensure that our future lives continue to have this precious human form, as a working basis for continuing our development. This is because we understand that our individual mental continuum has no beginning and no end. And if that mental continuum has my experience that is imputed on that, if that’s going to go on forever, then at the present moment, what follows moment to moment is something which is brought on, effected very strongly by disturbing emotions, disturbing attitudes, and the impulsive behavior or karmic behavior that’s based on that, and then the aftermath of that which just perpetuates the syndrome.

But when we understand that all of that derives from our confusion and unawareness of cause and effect and of reality, and we realize that this confusion can be countered by correct understanding, which is mutually exclusive with it, and if we can stay focused with that correct understanding all the time, then that misunderstanding will never be able to arise again. And when that misunderstanding is no longer present, then the disturbing emotions and also behavior that are based on it will also not recur. And therefore, the various problems that are associated with our moment-to-moment experience of life will also not arise. Then, we understand the basic purity of the mind, that all these troublemakers are what we call “fleeting stains.” They are something that obscure the pure nature of the mind, but are fleeting in the sense that they can be removed. Therefore, since that mental continuum is going to go on forever, I mean, since now the situation of it is that moment to moment there’s just more and more problems, dissatisfaction, frustration, and so on, and we realize that, and we also realize that it’s possible for our continuum of experience of life to be free of all of that, then it gives us the courage and confidence to work toward that goal. That’s called liberation.

In our understanding of reality, we come to understand that our own mental continuum is something which doesn’t exist independently, in isolation from everything else, establishing itself by its own power. But it’s made up of moment to moment to moment that is affected by many, many other factors. So, the technical term for that is that each moment arises dependently on many other factors. And the factors that it depends on are not limited to just material objects. But also, each moment is influenced by everybody else – the mental continuums of everybody else – and the larger units that are made up of that, such as family unites, society, nations, etc.

Now, when we examine the basic characteristics of our experience, what we find as one of the most fundamental ones of them is that we want to be happy and we don’t want to be unhappy. Of course, we could try to analyze why it is the case, why we all want to be happy and not to be unhappy. And that’s not an easy one to answer and usually it’s just explained as, “Well, that’s the way things are.” But if we’re not satisfied with that answer, then we can speculate further reasons which may or may not actually be correct explanations. And there is a difference between just accepting that – you know, “I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy” – between accepting that and accepting something that is beyond our experience. In other words, the fact that I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy, and that everybody else is like that, I want to be liked and I don’t want to be disliked, etc., that’s something that we might not be able to understand why, but we can confirm it from our experience.

So you can say, “Well, is that just having faith that this is the case, or is it something which is maybe not based on reason, but it’s based on experience?” And so, in this case, we’d say that, “Yes, it’s based on experience.” If we’re in pain, everyone wants to get out of that pain. You know, you want to take your hand out of the fire; we want to get out of the freezing cold. So that’s just sort of part of our nature. I mean, even if we want to punish ourselves or to prove something or whatever by keeping our hand in the fire; nevertheless to do that, we have to fight against the natural tendency to take it out. Whereas if we face the question of something like, “Is there some higher authority in the universe which is beyond our experience?” then that’s something different in terms of having constant belief that it is so, because it’s not something that we can experience. So, there’s a difference between believing something that is the sort of nature of something, that’s just the way they are in terms of what we can experience and what we do experience, as opposed to what is beyond out experience.

Pardon me for pursuing this, because I think it’s actually quite an interesting and important point. Now, we could say, “Well, isn’t this circular reasoning?” Because if I say that, “Well, I can have faith in something that I experience as well, which is in terms of the misconception that we all have about reality. And so can I accept that that’s just the way it is, simply because that’s what I experience?” This is the same thing as saying that, “Well, I experienced that I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy. Therefore, based on that, I can believe that that is the basic principle or characteristic.” So could we similarly say that the basic characteristic of reality is that it exists independently, establishing itself just the way that we see it in front of our eyes. Circular reasoning comes in by saying that, “Well, based on believing in these misconceptions about reality produces unhappiness and problems, whereas believing in terms of “I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy, produces happiness.” So that’s the circular reasoning that is here. It is using what you are trying to prove as the proof of what you’re trying to prove.

So, what we have to refer to here is the fact that we want to be happy and we don’t want to be unhappy. This is something which is the case, always. And it’s not something that has a mutually exclusive opposite – that if we were to think of another way, it would remove completely this general working principle. Whereas in terms of this confusion, that is not something that is present in every single moment, because when we focus on “there’s no such thing” as what this refers to, we focus on a correct understanding, and then that is not present. So, this is a basis for saying that, “I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy is actually part of the general nature of the mind and how it goes from moment to moment, whereas the confusion is not.” So you can’t just base the proof on the fact that, “Well, this is something that I experience.”

So, what is the importance or significance of being convinced that I want to be happy and I don’t to be happy and this is the basic nature of the mind. First of all, it reinforces the fact that in my general development, I want to go in the direction of getting rid of my unhappiness or suffering, and achieving a happiness which is something which is stable and will last. So that the striving for that, which is part of … I mean, if you look at biology, you could say, well, you know, a plant, an animal, strives to grow the best and stuff like that. So its parallel on the biological level that this quest to become happier and happier is something which is perfectly natural and appropriate.

Now, often we hear the next step after “I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy,” is to be convinced that I have the right to be happy and the right not to be unhappy. But that brings up the question of: “What in the world do you mean by the ‘right?’ Is that something that somebody else gives you the right: they give you permission? Or I have to give myself permission to be happy?” And that of course leads to further questions, such as, “Do I deserve to be happy or do I deserve to be unhappy?” And that leads to the further question of: “Do I have to earn the right to be happy?” And these are questions that arise particularly when our way of thinking has been affected by the conceptual framework of our Western biblical religions.

From a Buddhist point of view, these questions of: “You have to gain permission to be happy and deserving it, earning it,” and things like that, are really based on a misconception. The only issue here – from a Buddhist point of view – is it possible to be happy, and is it possible to get rid of happiness? And if it is possible, how to bring that about? The other questions of earning, somebody giving permission, and stuff like that, is based on a misconception of a solid recipient of happiness, a solid giver of happiness, and sort of almost like a business transaction between the two, as if happiness were a thing that could be given to someone, and that you have to earn the right to have it. So, it’s… in our pursuit of happiness, it’s very important then to clear away misconceptions about what is actually involved in that; otherwise these misconceptions are going to cause a great deal of hindrances, problems.

In addition, what follows from understanding that basic nature – there are many different factors of the basic nature of the mind, but one of those factors is I want to be happy, I don’t want to be unhappy – that if this is the case, and it’s possible for me to be happy by getting rid of the causes of unhappiness, then that is the case of everyone, the continuum of everyone. So, if this is part of the basic nature of everyone’s mental continuum, and if all of our mental continuums interact with each other and affect each other, then it is not really possible to achieve the deepest happiness independently of everyone else. In other words, in our pursuit of happiness, that mental continuum is not something that is like a river with huge walls on either side of it, that can just be pursued and the goal can be achieved by itself independently of everything else. Because all the different flows of these mental continuums, they’re not separate rivers with walls around them interacting with each either. But everything is interacting with each other in a very, very fluid way. Therefore, what we eventually realize, based on this, is that this wish to be happy and not to be unhappy, and the pursuit of that, is something which is a universal phenomenon. Alright?

So, if you visualize this, a whole huge system which is striving in a certain direction with the wish for going in a certain direction; we’re just a little part of that. And so actually if we could understand correctly what we would see is that actually the striving toward, let’s call it “liberation” or “enlightenment,” is something which has to be undertaken on the scale of the whole universe, not just on an individual scale. So, what we have been stressing previously in terms of compassion, turning away from unhappiness and suffering and turning toward happiness, and that’s... the connotation is just a strong awareness and determination to pursue that course of, “I want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy.” So we see this as the general nature of the whole universe. What does that mean? That means compassion, combined or supported by the warm-heartedness and affection which comes from realizing all the positive types of interaction that have occurred on the basis of the interdependence of all the various mental continuums.

Of, course there has also been a huge amount of interaction between everybody in terms of producing unhappiness. So, we’ve not only been interactive with everybody in a way which has produce happiness; we’ve also interacted in a way that produces unhappiness. However, the general principle that we want to be happy and we don’t want to be unhappy is more important. Then, in pursuing this, to emphasize when we’ve interacted in a positive way.

If we want to be able to work toward the happiness of everybody – the understanding that we have just explained – then we need to become what is called “omniscient.” We need to be able to understand in all its detail, all the complexity of the interaction and interdependence of everything. And although my mind makes it appear as though me and my mental continuum and everybody else’s, as if it were encapsulated in plastic or like a river with huge walls around it, that is a false appearance. And it’s because that I believe that this false appearance corresponds to reality, that it builds up a further and further habit of believing in it. And that habit of believing in it causes my mind to generate that false appearance. In order to be omniscient, to know the interconnectedness of everyone, then it’s necessary to get the mind to stop creating that false appearance.

So, why do I want to get rid of that false appearance, the appearance making? Why to I want to get rid of that, or stop that? It’s because I am drawn by compassion, I want to be able to help everybody because I see that that is the only way, really, logically, that happiness can come about. So that great compassion that we have for everyone is what is going to drive us to stay more and more focused on the fact that there are no walls, there is no encapsulating plastic. And the more that we stay focused on that, then that breaks the habit of the mind producing that false appearance. This is the way that we achieve enlightenment. It’s this combination of compassion and correct understanding.

So, all of this – I mean the way I am explaining it here – the whole presentation of the Buddhist path is based on the general principle, the nature of the mind, that I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy. If we look at the Buddhist practice – the Buddhist practice which is based on this – is called, generally, “building up and cleansing.” Or “collecting and cleansing,” I don’t like the word “collecting,” it sounds like you’re collecting stamps. And then again there’s a question of which one do you do first or you do these simultaneously. You want to build up the causes for happiness and get rid of the causes for unhappiness. We have a twofold process here. This word “building up” is like building up a charge, you know, an electric battery, so that it can then function in the fullest way. I think that’s a far more accurate an image than collecting stamps. And if you get enough, then you earn, you can go and buy happiness. I’m thinking of the image, of course, of food stores, where you collect the stamps and then you trade them in and you get a toaster oven or something like that.

Now, we’ve seen that what we experience in each moment of our continuum arises dependently on many, many other factors: what everybody else has done and all the things that are going on in the world – culture, etc. So, this is the case, both in terms of the unhappiness and suffering that we want to get rid of, as well as the happiness that we want to build up and achieve the maximum level. Now, often in our Buddhist training and likewise in Western therapies, what we focus on are all the causal factors that have brought us unhappiness and problems, and then we apply various methods to get rid of that. However, what we find to much less an extent is focusing on the positive things we have gained from others, and society, culture etc., which has contributed to our happiness and well-being. When we look at the four noble truths, then we get the impression that the approach in Buddhism is solely on getting rid of problems, and therefore focusing on all the negative things that cause problems. However, when we look a little bit further into the teachings, then all of a sudden, we discover something in addition to the basic presentation of the four noble truths, and that’s the presentation of the reliance on a spiritual teacher.

And there are also presentations on what’s called “Buddha-nature.” “Buddha-nature” – we can look at it in terms of many, many factors; “Buddha-nature” is a silly way of translating it. But what we are talking about is all the factors that enable us to become a Buddha. So, in any case, there are many, many factors, and one of those factors is the basic happy nature of the mind, the blissful nature of the mind. This isn’t asserted by everybody, but many of the Buddhist schools – Tibetan Buddhist schools – assert that as far as the general nature of the mind. So, we can say that, “Well, that’s the general cause of my happiness; all I have to do is focus on that.” But, if you think about it, just focusing on that is really focused on ourselves and our own mental continuums.

One of the terms for “Buddha-nature” – there is no such word as “nature” that is part of any of the terminology, and what is translated as “Buddha-nature” – so, the main terms are either “family trait” – “characteristic” actually is the word for “caste” – so the “family trait” that will enable us to be part of the family, of those who will become a Buddha. Or it’s the word for “womb.” It’s the womb within which we grow as a Buddha. Now, obviously, we are going to grow and develop within the womb of someone of our own species. So these two images fit together. So, parts of the family traits are the voidness of the mind, the natural purity of the mind, the actual blissful aspect of the mind, the fact that there’s energy, and the fact that that energy moves out and communicates, the fact that the mind makes appearances, and so we get mind, speech and body. All of these are the womb within which, and the traits within which, we can then develop the fullest potentials of these as a Buddha. But there’s the role of the guru, the role of the spiritual teacher, in addition to this.

In the Kadam tradition, going into the Gelug tradition, the way the role of the guru is explained is as the root. So the root of the pathway mind that will bring you to liberation and enlightenment; it’s that from which you gain nourishment. And the nourishment that we receive is in the form of what I translate as “inspiration.” It’s usually translated as “blessings,” but I think that is an incredibly unfortunate choice of terms, because it brings in a whole totally irrelevant conceptual framework. Inspiration, to grow! So, inspiration gives us the strength at the beginning, middle and end; the strength to start on the spiritual path, the strength to continue on it, and the strength to go to the end of it. So, it gives us the inspiration and then the strength to pursue in its fullest form, this basic nature of the mind which to be happy and not to be unhappy.

So, this practice that I want to introduce, integrating our life, is based on the teachings concerning the spiritual teacher and how do we derive the inspiration from the spiritual teacher. This is the source or the model for what I will teach. We have the teaching on how to relate to a spiritual teacher in the most healthy, beneficial way in order to gain the maximum inspiration.

Everyone has shortcomings and everybody has positive aspects or positive points. And as we find in many many scriptural texts, that it’s going to be nearly impossible to find a spiritual teacher who has only good qualities and no drawbacks, no shortcomings. Even if that shortcoming is that my teacher doesn’t have time for me because my teacher has so many other disciples. Alright? We don’t have to think of shortcomings in terms of being angry all the times.

Now, we have all these teachings in terms of seeing the spiritual teacher as Buddha and so on. I don’t want to go into to much detail – I really don’t want to go into any detail about this, since it’s a huge topic. I wrote a whole book about that – but what I’m drawing on is the Fifth Dalai Lama’s commentary on this, his presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path. In the scriptural text concerning relating to a spiritual teacher, and this aspect of focusing on being a Buddha, what it says is that there is no benefit derived in focusing on the shortcomings of anything and complaining about that. All it does is depress you. This is what the scriptural texts say. There’s no point in focusing on the negative qualities of anything or anyone, and complaining about it, because that only causes you to become depressed. So, therefore, if you focus on the positive qualities, you gain inspiration.

So, in commenting about this, the Fifth Dalai Lama now relates this to the practice to relating to a spiritual teacher. He says, in approaching this meditation, what’s called guru-yoga, and so on, meditating on the spiritual teacher, the first step is to acknowledge the shortcomings of the spiritual teacher. This is radically different from the way that many other texts present guru-yoga, how to meditate on the guru, the spiritual teacher. So he says, acknowledge the shortcomings of the spiritual teacher, whatever they may be. Don’t be in a state of denial. But, look at it in light of what Buddha had said, that there’s no benefit in dwelling on that. So, I acknowledge it; I’m not denying it. But if I focus on that, that’s not going to help me; in fact, it’s just going to bring me down. And then you put it to the side.

And once we have done this process, of dealing with the shortcoming of the spiritual teacher, then you can focus on the positive qualities, which is where the traditional meditation on the spiritual teacher begins. Because if we don’t do this, then in a sense we begin to question ourselves, “Aren’t I being naive in this whole process of focusing on the guru.” Then, at this point, what we do is first we try to recognize the good qualities of the spiritual teacher, and be convinced that this is a fact, not that we are making this up. So, we recognize the good qualities, the beneficial qualities. And the state of mind that we develop from that is a confident belief that this is true; this is fact.

So, once we have this confident belief that these are in fact the good qualities of the teacher, then the traditional language is to focus on the kindness of the teacher. So basically what we are focusing on is the benefit that I have received from these positive qualities. And the state of mind, the emotion that we develop from that is a deep appreciation and respect. These terms are translated usually in quite different ways, but if we look at the definitions, this is what it is talking about. So, you develop a deep appreciation and respect of the benefit that I have received from these positive qualities of the teacher, which I am totally confident – I am not fooling myself – that this is, in fact, true. And then, we imagine lights coming from the spiritual teacher into us and inspire us on the basis of that confident belief in the good qualities and appreciation of the benefit we’ve received from them. And this meditation, then, is the root through which we derive strength and inspiration to try to develop more and more these qualities in ourselves, based on Buddha-nature. Because we realize that we are in the same caste, the same family, ourselves, the spiritual teacher and the Buddha.

So, if our mental continuum has been influenced by so many others, and so many different factors, then the same analysis would apply to each of the sources of influence on our mental continuum as it does to the spiritual teacher. The same analysis in terms of we have received benefit and we have received detrimental influence. The same analysis, then, applies, for instance, to our family, to our culture, to our nation, to all the teachers we have had in school, to everything. There have been positive aspects of them and negative aspects of them. We can focus on the negative aspects, various things that have influenced or caused me problems in life, and then you can get into therapy. But from the Buddhist point of view, although you need to get rid of all the problems that have been influenced by these things, there’s no point in complaining about it. So we look at the other side, which is all the good qualities of all these things, the benefits that I have received from them, and then derive inspiration from that and integrate all of that together, to see that the “me” is labeled not just on the basis of all these problems and the causes of these problems, but the “me” is labeled on all these benefits and positive things that I have derived from others.

This is the framework of this program of intergrating our lives that the “me” is labeled on. So, when we talk about integrating our lives, then it’s like what the Fifth Dalai Lama advises regarding the guru. We acknowledge, you know, “My mother did this to me and my father did that to me and caused this problem and that problem,” etc., etc. We acknowledge all of that. We don’t deny it. But we see that there is no benefit in complaining about it or focusing on that. And then we focus on all the positive things that we have derived from family, friends, etc., with the greatest of appreciation for that. And in this manner, we integrate our lives in the sense of seeing that the “me” is labeled on all of that, both the negative influences and the positive influences. And we focus, in our meditation, now simply on the positive aspects, in order to gain strength and inspiration. And that strength and inspiration will be beneficial in a “Dharma Lite” version, just in terms of this lifetime, and give us the strengths to work toward our future lives, liberation and enlightenment.

We’ll take our break now, and then after the break we will start the practice. Perhaps we should start with some questions to make sure that you understand it, but I wanted to present in a fairly full form where all of this derives from, so that you have some sort of confidence that it’s not something made up. But, that this derives very fully from the Buddhist method, and to understand why this type of practice would be beneficial, how it would be applied, and what would be the use of doing this, so equivalent to Tsongkhapa’s analysis of how do you meditate, how do you build up a positive state of mind, so that then one can enter into one’s practice without doubts. That’s very important in any practice.