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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > Exercises For Integrating One's Life > Session Three: The Relation of Belief in Good Qualities, Inspiration and Compassion, and Working with Our Mothers

Exercises For Integrating One's Life

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, November 2008

Session Three: The Relation of Belief in Good Qualities, Inspiration and Compassion, and Working with Our Mothers

Unedited Transcript
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We have looked at the framework from which these teachings about integrating our life derive, and there are just a few more points I want to add before I open it up for questions. This is concerning the word – not just the word, but what we mean by – “inspiration.” We have the Sanskrit word adhishtana, and we have the Tibetan word chin-gi-lab. In Sanskrit, the word means, basically, something that will place us in a higher position or more advanced. And what this implies is something which is uplifting, that lifts us up, gives us the strength and the support to develop ourselves to a higher stage. And the Tibetan term lab is a wave, and chin-gi gives the impression that this is a wave of something that gives us something, and also the connotation of it brightens us. It brings us more waves through brightening us that give us something. Like when there are waves of light that come to a plant, then it can grow. So, this is what we can derive from the etymology of both Sanskrit and the way that it was translated into Tibetan.

Now, what can uplift us? What can brighten us with strength and sustenance? Well, in the Buddhist description we derive this both upward and downward, in two ways. It’s referring to some source that has more qualities that we look up to, and one that we look toward in terms of someone that I can help. It's not that I’m looking down on them, as an inferior. We look at the Buddhas and the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in terms of our refuge and safe direction and we derive inspiration from that. We have many practices that we do in which we visualize these waves of inspiration coming to us from Buddha and the refuge tree, this sort of things. We do this also in terms of Buddha-figures – Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig, etc. But because the qualities of the Buddha are very, very difficult for us to relate to, then we represent all of this with a spiritual teacher, someone that we know, that we have some personal contact with, some personal experience with, because it's much easier to relate to. So the role of the spiritual teacher has always been described as the conduit through which we can gain the inspiration from Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. So it’s like a magnifying glass that will bring the brilliance of the sun down to a plant, on the ground.

But, similarly, we can derive inspiration from all limited beings. So we hear this term, “ sentient beings,” but a sentient being, that's jargon, it doesn’t mean very much in English, and what it refers to is a “limited being.” A Buddha is not a sentient being. So it’s a limited being, limited not in the sense of handicapped, but limited in the sense that the body, speech and mind are not able to function at the fullest capacity because of various problems: anger or attachment and so on. So, when we are in a group of others, for instance – I mean, I certainly experience this and I think every teacher experiences this, whether a spiritual teacher or anyone else that’s working with other people – that when you are with other people who need your help and can be helped by you, you draw a great deal of inspiration or strength from that situation to rise above. You’re uplifted to go beyond what you would ordinarily be able to do just sitting in your room. To explain something sitting in front of the computer by myself is far less productive than explaining in front of a live audience, because you gain strength and inspiration from the beings around you.

But remember our discussion of belief in a fact, usually translated as faith. You have belief based on reason; you have a clearheaded belief that clears your mind of all disturbing emotions about the object; and belief in the fact with an aspiration about it. I'm not talking about confident belief, that's not the term that I am using. “Confident belief” is a different Tibetan term that adds a sense of certainty to a belief in a fact. That's a separate mental factor. When we talk about the spiritual teacher, then we use this term. It’s “ mopa” in Tibetan, which in addition to belief in the fact that the teacher has these qualities and we don't have any disturbing emotions about it, and have the aspiration to become like that, then when we add a sense of total certitude about that, then it’s that other term, “ mopa,” instead of “ daypa,” confident belief.

It’s the same difference between “distinguishing” and “discriminating awareness.” We distinguish light from dark, or what's helpful from what's harmful, but when you add decisiveness to that, then you have what’s called “discriminating awareness.” These are usually translated as “recognition” and “wisdom,” and when you translate it like that, it becomes totally meaningless in terms of understanding the difference between the two. The difference between the two is the level of certitude about it.

In Buddhist analysis, they differentiate very very precisely different mental and emotional states, so we need to be quite careful to not obscure the differences being made here. So this dimension of decisiveness, you know, either you're indecisive or a little bit wavering or you're totally decisive about something, is going to affect the emotion that we feel. So this is why these distinctions are made here.

So, my point here being that when we talk about inspiration, then what we really want to have is this belief in a fact. It's clear in terms of the spiritual teacher or the Buddhas that we're talking about, we’re based on reason, all the sort of things that led them to be able to have these qualities. And we would have the same thing in terms of the spiritual teacher. And our mind is clear, our emotions are cleared of disturbing emotions about that. We're not attached, we're not angry, we’re not jealous, these sort of things. So no jealousy, thinking that we're worse and no arrogance, thinking we're better. And the aspiration to become like that, to develop those qualities further in ourselves.

Now, when we talk about deriving inspiration from all limited beings, there are those that we are trying to help. Then naturally what comes up is the discussion of compassion. Now, ordinarily, our compassion is mixed with, usually, attachment. And so, our child needs our help, and sure we derive strength, even if we're tired, to be able to help the child. But we are very worried and we are very attached and there are a lot of disturbing emotions that can be mixed in there as well. We are insecure; we are afraid we might do the wrong thing. And are we really thinking of the good qualities of the child? Not really.

We can't deny that you have derived a great deal of strength just from this ordinary compassion to help others that need our help, like our child. But that's not quite the whole thing that we are talking about in the Buddhist teaching in terms of deriving inspiration from limited beings. But, as we've seen in our discussions this week about compassion, that what we’re talking about is acknowledging – and we discussed it this morning as well – that what is the basis is the good quality: everyone wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy, kindness, etc.; the ability of everybody to be happy and not to be unhappy, and we're totally clearheaded, we certainly believe that that is a fact. It is a fact, I have belief in it, in fact we're quite confident of that, and we don't have any disturbing emotions toward these limited beings. And there’s the aspiration, of course, to help to get rid of their problems.

And so, when we are inspired by a group of others that we can help, then there’s nothing disturbing about that. It is a totally clear, non-upsetting state of mind. So, one is uplifted, the mind is very clear, the emotions are very calm, and filled with a great deal of strength, which is not unbalanced or anything like that. “It’s just flowing,” we would say in our colloquial language. The question that’s coming to my mind is, “Is this a blissful or happy state of mind?”

When we talk about feelings, feeling of happy and unhappy, there are two categories of that. There are upsetting feelings and non-upsetting feelings. And I think we would have to speak, if we were talking about the ideal form of inspiration, of a non-upsetting form of happiness. So, it wouldn't be dramatic, in our usual what we conceive of in a samsaric way, as being dramatic happiness. It’s a much more calm flavor of happiness, which many of us might not even recognize as happiness. I mean, we’re opening the door to as huge discussion of what does it mean to be happy and what are all the different forms of happiness and what does it mean even just to feel good. We won't go through that door into that big discussion.

My point in bringing all of this up is that when we’re working to gain inspiration from all the positive things that we've gained from others in our lifetime, and we're focusing on the good qualities of these various sources, people and culture, etc., then we want to have that in a manner that there are no disturbing emotions about it. It’s not so simple. But for this to work ideally, then we acknowledge that, you know, this person might have hurt me or blah blah blah, acted nastily, but we’re not angry and we’re not upset about that. And this person has been kind to me, but we're not clinging to that and greedy for more and any of that; we’re certainly not jealous or arrogant. It’s just a little more background.

If you have any questions concerning the understanding of what we're describing here, please ask, but I really don't want to take up the rest of the session with that. But if there’s some pressing question that you don't understand what’s going on, please. The conclusion of what I just explained in the beginning of the session is that before doing this exercise, then we need to basically calm down. So, any strong questions?

Question: So the question is, when we’re trying to direct compassion, for example toward limited beings, we are having in our minds people for which we have a lot of disturbing emotions. Then realizing that we are filled with disturbing emotions, should we at that point stop the practice because we can not get rid of those emotions immediately or should we proceed in doing the practice even with interference of those disturbing emotions?

Alex: As Tsongkhapa explained, in order to generate a certain positive state of mind, we need to know what is it based on; what needs to precede it in order to support it. And so, compassion, when we look at the various meditations which are aimed at developing a bodhichitta aim, compassion is a step in them, but it certainly is not the first step in them. And so the basis for it is, we can go way way back to the very beginning of the lam-rim if you want to find the basis. But if we speak of the immediate basis for it, the immediate basis is equanimity. So we need to view this person in terms of, “Well, I 'm upset about them because they haven't acted nice to me or horrible to me” and we have attachment or repulsion and see that, “Well, there are many other circumstances, and in different circumstances, the person that I'm so attached to can also cause me the most pain if they ignore me. One that I don't like, if they change, they could possibly become my close friend, etc.” So we develop a state of equanimity. So, the basis for developing love and compassion is this type of equanimity that at least temporarily frees the mind of attraction, repulsion and indifference.

In a more general way, as I outlined in Developing Balanced Sensitivity, we need a quiet mind, and a quiet mind is quieted not only of attraction, repulsion and indifference, but also quieted of flightiness of mind – our mind wanders off with all sorts of strange thoughts, either about the person or about something else – and also quieted of dullness. In order to really develop proper compassion, the mind can't be thinking about all sorts of other things, especially not thinking about the nasty things that this person might have done to me and made me upset or the wonderful things that I want from them that make me so attached and desirous. As His Holiness the Dali Lama always says, we need to differentiate the person from what the person has done, when we want to develop compassion. What they did might have been quite horrible, however when we want to develop compassion, we develop it on the basis of just this is a human being, this is a limited being. They want to be happy; they don't want to be unhappy, just as this is the case with myself. Even if we have a lot of disturbing emotions towards the person, if we can focus on… if we realize that the basis for it is what they did, but not the person as the person, and then shift our attention to the person as a person, then we can develop compassion. Anything else?

Question: What we're talking about achieving the possibility of in “Dharma Lite,” with “ Dharma Lite” practice, is not full happiness and with “The Real Thing” Dharma we're actually working toward full happiness. Is that correct or not?

Alex: That’s correct. With “Dharma Lite,” it’s not that we’re aiming for enlightenment in this lifetime. Therefore, we’re only thinking in terms of this lifetime. We’re not even considering future lives, rebirth or liberation from rebirth or anything like that yet, or not at all. What we’r e focusing on is just trying to improve this lifetime, to be happier in this lifetime. And we might not even understand the true suffering of change, that the type of happiness that we have in this lifetime is always going to be frustrating, and so on. Or we might understand that and say, “ Well, okay, but I’d like more of it.”

Question: She says, according to what I have understood so far, my happiness is my personal responsibility, and according to what I understand from the teachings that you just gave, because of all the influences of all the other people or all the other mental continuums, so my own happiness also depends on the interaction with other mental continuums. Is that correct or not?

Alex: That’s correct. We have to be a little careful that we understand what we mean by the word “responsible.” I can't expect other people to make me happy. In order to bring happiness to my experience, I have to work on that. However, it's not that I exist in isolation from everybody else. And so I need to be able to appreciate the influence that others have upon me that will bring happiness and appreciate it in a way that is free from disturbing emotions about it. Not clinging to it and so on.

The basic nature of the mind, as we said, from the point of view of many great masters, is happy; it’s blissful. Because of there being various stains, or fleeting stains, we say, obscuring this, then the natural drive is to be happy – so to be in that natural state of happiness of the mind and to get rid of the unhappiness from these fleeting stains. So the discussion of the nature of the mind being happy or blissful is very much related to this whole nature of wanting to be happy and not wanting to be unhappy. In any case, what I wanted to say was that the deepest, ultimate source of happiness has to be internal. One can’t depend on others for one’s happiness. However, others in interactions with others can inspire us to develop these qualities within us, and can act as a condition for bringing about happiness. But the ultimate source of happiness has to be within.

I think of the analogy of entropy has to do with… we organize our experience into very tightly organized conceptual frameworks, and based on these conceptual frameworks, all sorts of disturbing emotions and stuff come in. So it becomes a very highly organized system, whereas the nature of the mind is to relax all of that. And this is what we try to do in meditation process, is to deconstruct all of this framework, to go in the direction of entropy. My analogy – and maybe that’s just pushing the point – is that if we let go, in a sense, the natural tendency will be like entropy, to calm down, to go to this more disorganized state. “Disorganized” sounds like a negative thing, but in a sense it’s a relaxed thing in which the natural happiness of the mind shined forth. That was the point of the analogy I was trying to formulate.

When I say a “conceptual framework,” we organize things into a conceptual framework, what I’m meaning here is: “You did this to me and therefore you're horrible, and you hurt me and what you did,” and all of these things we solidify that into a projection. We organized it into some mental construct and then we hold onto that, and we're angry on the basis of it and so on. And we experience the other person in this highly organized conceptually constructed framework. We’re not just talking about general categories of words, but something that we have solidified in our minds. And this requires a tremendous amount of energy, actually, and that energy is manifested in all sorts of disturbing emotions and so on. If we would relax, let the natural tendency of the mind to deconstruct that, to disorganize from that in the manner of entropy, then we get down to the natural thing. And when we speak in terms of, for instance, Kagyu mahamudra meditation that's exactly what you're doing. The way that it’s described in Kagyu mahamudra meditation, then, is that this tight conceptual framework will naturally release itself, automatically release itself. So that’s very descriptive of entropy.

And please bear in mind that this highly organized conceptual framework entails not just “you” as the criminal, the monster, but also “me” as the victim. So, when as part of our exercise here, we acknowledge the shortcomings of the other person, various harms that we might have received from the other person, we need a little bit of training in these methods to let go in order to be able to not hold onto that highly organized conceptual framework of the person, and not identify them with that and me as the victim. Because if we are identifying ourselves as the victim, we can not easily see ourselves as the recipient of benefit from the other person. We're just the victim; we've only received harm from them. So this whole process is not actually such a beginner process.

To be able to do this practice, one needs to be able to let go. And therefore, as in the context of the entire Balanced Sensitivity program, first step is quieting the mind, letting go. In fact we need both sides of the preparation we do for Developing Balanced Sensitivity, which is the quiet mind and the caring attitude. The quiet mind – we quiet our mind even just using the simple method of letting go of these disturbing thoughts. But we also need the caring attitude, the caring attitude is “I care about what happens to me” and that is based on acknowledging that I want to be happy and I don't want to be unhappy.” Therefore I care about that, I’m concerned about it, which is what the word “care” means. I'm concerned about that and I take that seriously. Therefore I am going to try to do something, and I realize that just staying focused on negative things that I’ve gotten from others and complaining about it is only going to make me more unhappy. Therefore, since I care about my happiness, I will try to focus on the positive things that I’ve gained from others.

So let us try the exercise. First, what we need to do is to settle down and quiet the mind. So, the simplest method for that is letting go of various disturbing thoughts and disturbing feelings and stuff like that. Just as we breathe out, we imagine that they leave us, so it’s in a graphic form. And I don't mean a picture, but it could be like a picture. We imagine that our mind is like a tight fist and we just open it and let go. We let go of holding on to these thoughts and disturbing emotions and, as we breathe out, we just sort of let go. And we don't need to just simply picture this in our mind, if it's helpful, we can actually do this with our fist. We start with a closed fist and then we slowly open up our fist. This is perhaps most useful in real life situations in which we are not letting go and we can recognize that we're not letting go, this could sort of help us to let go holding on to of some really negative thought.

Now, of course it's very artificial to lead a meditation like this, because each of us will need a different amount of time to quiet down. So excuse me if I start the next step either too early or too late in terms of your own ability to quiet down. But I will do this a little bit quickly, each step, just so we get through the whole sequence before lunch. You can have your eyes either open or closed, but what’s always recommended is for them to be half-opened, looking down at the floor. The reason for that – I mean, there are many, many reason for that – but the relevant reason for that is that it's important to be able to calm down, or to generate any sort of positive mind in our daily life. And if you have to close your eyes in order to do that in daily regular normal life with people, then that becomes extremely awkward.

Then, with the caring attitude, we recall, “I'm a human being like everybody else. And I want to be happy and not to be unhappy, like everyone. And it's possible to be happy and not to be unhappy. And I care about myself, I care about my feelings, how I feel, that I be happy.”

And now we turn to our families, and let's start with our mothers. And we recall our mother: we can use some sort of mental image of her to represent her. This is not an exercise in visualization, so don't worry about it being clear or not. And we acknowledge that she was a human being, like everybody else, and wanted to be happy, not to be unhappy. And tried her best to accomplish that.

And my mother had shortcomings, certainly, like every other human being. So, we try to recall them. We don't have to go into a deep analysis of what are all the causes for these shortcomings, but just be aware that they did come from causes. Just acknowledge what shortcomings she might have had. Whether she is still alive or she’s already passed, away, doesn’t make any difference. But there's no point complaining about her shortcomings. So, I'm not going to dwell on them, I'm not going to just think of her in terms of these shortcomings.

It's not a matter of forgiving or not forgiving. It's just being objective about it.

And instead, we turn to her strong points, her good points, the positive things about her. And we try to identify those good qualities, and have strong belief that it's true. We’re not just projecting it, it is true. Whatever those good qualities might be; whether grand or small.

If while we are trying to focus on and recall her good qualities, thoughts of her shortcomings come up again, we let go. We let them go with a general emotional feeling of kindness toward her. Okay, she had these shortcomings; well, okay. But that’s not what I’m focusing on now. But we feel very deeply, she really does have these qualities, and we have firm conviction of that. This word, by the way, sometimes has a little bit of color in it of admiration as well.

And then we think in terms of the benefit that others and in particular ourselves, that we have received from these good qualities, whether they have helped us or whether they have influenced us.

One might notice that as we continue this process we recall more and more good qualities that we might not have identified earlier in the meditation process. This often comes up the more that we think about her in this positive light.

And the emotion that we generate here is one of deep appreciation and deep respect for the benefits that we have derived, and others have derived as well, from these good qualities. And its not just we appreciate her for having had these qualities and benefited us, but we appreciate very much the qualities that we have in ourselves that we have gained through her influence, through the influence of those qualities, in other words, to be like that.

And then, finally, we develop this strong wish to be able to develop these qualities more and more in ourselves, these qualities that we have somehow gained through her influence.

Then we calm down and just let the experience sink in and gradually return to our ordinary state, a non-meditative state.

And then we think whatever positive influence, positive force, has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and actually develop these positive qualities to be able to use them to benefit everyone.