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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > Exercises For Integrating One's Life > Session Six: Working with Our National and Religious Background, and the Larger Picture of the Full Practice

Exercises For Integrating One's Life

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, November 2008

Session Six: Working with Our National and Religious Background, and the Larger Picture of the Full Practice

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:32 hours)

I’d like to leave a little bit of space for questions. There was one question during the break, which was what is the difference between the “self” and the “me,” or the “I.” And I think that since this question was asked by a psychologist, and terminology is a little bit different, then I think really the question is one of what’s the difference between, on the one hand, the impossible “me” – or false “me,” it’s usually called – the false “me” or the “me” to be refuted, and the conventional “me” – that’s the Buddhist terminology – and what is spoken of in psychology as “healthy ego” and “inflated ego.” Because, actually, the word “me” or “self,” from a Buddhist point of view, is the same. So I think the question is about these two conceptual frameworks.

So, when we speak in terms of psychology, and we speak in terms of ego, we’re talking about a conscious state of mind that is thinking in terms of me. Alright? I’m not going to speak in terms of a very specific Freudian analysis or any particular school, but just speaking in general. So, when we think of “me” in terms of the conventional “me,” what Buddhism is talking about is the object of the mind. And so when we think in terms of a conventional “me,” that would be a healthy ego; when we think of “me” in terms of an impossible “me,” the false “me,” then that’s an inflated ego. That’s dealing with something that doesn’t exist, that’s impossible. Such as, “not only do I exist as some solid entity, but I’m the center of the world. I’m the most important one. I should always have my way, etc.” So they’re not contradictory, the Buddhist analysis and the psychological analysis, it’s just that perhaps the Buddhist analysis goes in a more subtle manner of what actually is this impossible “me” and what actually is the conventional “me.”

Many therapies are designed to “You have certain problems, these are the problems, and the therapy will help you to live with them in a better manner.” Whereas Buddhism is aimed at getting rid of the cause of the problem and eliminating the problem completely, not just learning to live with it. So, learning to live with our problems is certainly an initial step, an important step. We speak in Buddhism in terms of the initial scope, that when a disturbing emotion arises, don’t act it out, exercise self-control. So that’s, in a sense, learning to live with it. But, Shantideva says very nicely that things like anger, they are the real enemy and they are not things that you can make peace with, because they are going to lie in ambush and come back and attack us again, and cause trouble again. So it’s not a matter of just making peace with them and learning to live with them in some corner of your mind, but we have to get rid of them completely.

Making peace with problematic situations is, I think, more at the level of what we need to do is to accept them. We have to accept that, let’s say, we were born into some minority group, and the parents split up immediately even before we were born, and we lived in a ghetto, and everybody had prejudice against up, and street gangs and all of these things. Okay, we need to accept the reality of that, so in a sense you make peace with it, rather then just spend your whole life complaining and think that everybody owes you something because we had such a bad deal in life. But then, on the basis of having made peace with that, then we are accepting the reality of that, then you go on to try to improve, get out of that situation.

Any other questions?

Question: The same reasoning that you just used applies to illnesses?

Alex: Absolutely. If we have a serious sickness, there’s no use in complaining about it. That’s certainly not going to help. Or asking for, you know, now the world owes me everything. That doesn’t work. But, we try to turn adverse circumstances into positive ones. So, first of course, one needs to acknowledge that this is suffering; this is not terribly nice. And so one doesn’t deny the unpleasantness of a serious sickness. It doesn't help to pretend that this isn’t terrible; it is terrible, that we have cancer or multiple sclerosis or we’re paralyzed or whatever it might be. But we have to accept reality.

The most fundamental principle of Buddhism is “accept reality.” Understand reality and accept it, don’t project all sorts of impossible fantasies; and transform an adverse circumstance into a positive one. There are many ways of doing that. For example, one friend of mine had a brain tumor, and it was removed, and after that he became a super serious Buddhist practitioner, because more then ever from before, he recognized the precious human rebirth that he has, and that whatever time he has, that he wants to make the best use of it and not just waste it. So, it helped him to become much stronger on the Buddhist path.

You know the definition of life? A sexually transmitted disease with a 100% fatality rate. So this is very true, actually, we all have a precious human life and it’s going to end. It’s a 100% fatality rate. And so, it’s just a matter of when. We never know when. So if we have some really serious disease, it makes us take far more seriously the reality that we all face. And also we should remember that a perfectly healthy person can die long before we would die, even if we have a chronic disease. Anybody can be hit by a car at any time. I think of another friend of mine, who has multiple sclerosis. He was confined to a wheel chair and so he became seriously paralyzed. And he had studied Buddhism before that, but similar to the friend with the brain tumor, he became much more serious about it. And he then became a psychologist and started counseling others who were paralyzed or who had these type of chronic serious sicknesses, because suffering from it himself, having it himself, he was in a much better position to be able to give advice to others, and others wouldn’t resent him. You know, if a very healthy person advises someone like that, if a person who can see is advising a blind person, “Well, don’t feel so bad, you’re blind,” it doesn’t have the same impact as someone who is similarly afflicted. So, whether we’re talking about blindness, whether we’re talking about cancer, whether we’re talking about being HIV positive, it is possible to change and transform this adverse circumstance into a positive one and that will enable us to not only develop spiritually more ourselves, but to able to better help others. And as I said, the basis for it, to help us not feel sorry for ourselves, is acknowledging that “Yes, this is terrible.”

Any other questions?

OK. Then let’s work further with our exercise. We worked with family members. We just focused on mother and father. And unless we are one of those very fortunate ones who have a wonderful mother and father and only a wonderful relationship with them, perhaps we found some difficulty with one or the other or both. And we found that there was some resistance in trying to find some good qualities in this person; it was difficult to discover them. First of all, it’s nearly impossible that there’s somebody that has only bad qualities. Maybe they showed primarily negative qualities toward us, but what about qualities that they showed toward others? Maybe that’s a whole other field, a whole other aspect of this person. And so this means that we have narrowed down the basis of labeling for our mother or our father just to aspects of their interactions with me, and the majority negative. So, we need to expand the basis for labeling our mother or our father and think in terms of their whole life: their interactions with everyone and their interactions with their own parents, etc. And, in this way, we get a little bit more objective about one or the other parent or anybody in this exercise.

So, obviously this exercise is not a simple one. None of the Buddhist exercises are simple. Or Buddhist-based exercises – this isn’t a specifically Buddhist one, it’s a Buddhist-based. When mental blocks come up, and difficulties come up, this is very, very good. Because, as Tsongkhapa always pointed out, you have to be able to recognize the object to be refuted in order to refute it. And so you have to recognize what it is I have to work on before you can work on it. The image that’s used is that if you can’t see the target, you’re not going to be able to hit it with an arrow.

We worked with mother and father, and we can easily see how we can to extend this to various other members of our family. And even if we haven’t had a close relationship with them and not terribly much interaction with them, it doesn’t really matter because in a sense, we come from that family and so we can look at the good qualities of this person in any case, whether or not they particularly specifically manifested in terms of how we interacted with them. If we think that our family is complete – excuse the word – crap, and is complete garbage, then who are we? I mean, they produced another piece of crap. So, that’s, I think, a psychological truth, that one finds, that it’s very important to have a more positive feeling about those that produced us, not just the parents, but the family.

So, let us then go on. And obviously there is no time to go through this whole list, but let’s think in terms of our native country. And I’d like to also include here, although we can do it in separate steps, the native religion that we’ve been born into. I know in a country like this, Mexico, it’s a little bit difficult to separate an influence of the Mexican character from the influence of Catholicism, but for most people those would be separate issues. I’m not talking about identity here, I’m talking about influence; that the influence of Mexican culture and the influence of Catholicism, that would be difficult to separate. But try to think if there are other characteristics of Mexican culture and Mexican mentality that is positive and is part of us.

We start by, let’s focus on our national background first. To start we need to quiet our minds.

And then generate a caring attitude for ourselves. “I’m a human being, I have feelings, I care about happiness and not being unhappy, etc.” You don’t need to go into to great detail.

Now, the next step here, what we did with our parents was to bring to mind a picture of the person or an image representing them. This is of course much more difficult when we’re thinking of our native country, whether it’s of the people here in Mexico or Cuba or Germany or the United States. So obviously visualizing a flag is a little bit silly. In whatever way, even if it’s just the name of the country, try to focus our attention on that.

And we can recall the shortcomings and negative qualities. And see they have arisen from causes and circumstances and that there is no benefit in dwelling on them or complaining about them. Then you put them aside.

Then recall the good qualities of the country, and what good qualities we’ve gained from having come from that background. And focus on these facts with firm conviction, that these really are good qualities and I really have been influenced by them.

And then we try to recognize the benefits we have derived from that nationality in terms of what we have learned. And once we’ve recognized that, try to develop a sense of deep appreciation and respect for our national background. That doesn’t mean become a fanatic patriot and go around waving the flag. It’s much more realistic and not exaggerated.

Then try to feel inspired to develop these qualities further.

Then we think of the native religion to which we were born. Thinking in terms of our family’s religion, not necessarily our country’s dominant religion, unless we went to a school which gave religious training and so on in a religion which was not our family’s. Obviously there can be cases like that.

And somehow represent that in our minds so that we can think about it. It might just be with the mental word. It doesn’t have to be so specific. You don’t have to visualize a cross or something like that, unless that’s helpful. And recall the shortcoming and negative qualities if there are any, and see that they have arisen due to causes and circumstances. And decide there's no benefit that comes from dwelling on that and making a big deal out of it, but without denying it, decide.

And then try to recall the good qualities of the religion, and what positive qualities we’ve gained from the influence of that religion. Even if we’ve turned from that religion, it’s nearly impossible that it didn't have some influence on us.

And think with firm conviction that these qualities are true, which really are qualities of this religion, and they truly have had an influence on me.

Then recognize the benefits we have derived from this religious background in terms of what we’ve learned, what we’ve gained. With deep appreciation and respect for that religion.

And we try to feel inspired to develop these qualities further.

Now, we imagine our mother, our father, and something or representing our national background and our religious background, surrounding us, just in front of us. And we think of the good qualities we’ve gained from our mothers. Do you remember? Yellow light comes to us and fills us with more inspiration to development then further. Yellow light comes from her heart to our heart.

And now add on top of that thinking good qualities that came from our father. Light comes from his heart, so now we have light coming from both their hearts, so we have both these qualities together.

Then add the national character, the positive things we’ve gained from that, positive influence.

And then to integrate these you may have to have some sort of key phrase that represents the positive things from each of these, and repeat them so as to keep them all fresh.

Then add the good qualities and influence that we’ve received from that, from our native religion. All four of them together.

Then, as an integrated whole of all these positive qualities, we imagine that the integration of all of these shines from us like yellow light benefiting everyone, like from a sun.

And try to let this sink in, and think whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may this act as a cause for really being able to use all these positive qualities to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.

And slowly come out of this meditative state.

One further thing needs to be added here, which is our understanding of voidness and mental labeling. We need to have that understanding as the container of this whole process, and one of the ways of doing that is to think of it at the beginning, before starting the process, and reaffirming our understanding of it at the end. So, we start in terms of understanding that there’s no such thing as a solid “me.” “Me” is just what the word “me” refers to on the basis of all the everchanging things that I experience in life. And these various aspects that I experience arise from many, many causes and conditions, and have many parts, etc. So there’s nothing solid about the basis and nothing solid about what’s being imputed upon that basis. So, then the process of the meditation is building up a positive basis for labeling, and our feeling of integration of all of that is a feeling of what we would call a healthy ego, what we were discussing before in terms of a conventional “me.” It’s labeled in terms of that. When we do this process in terms of tantra practice and a Buddha-figure, then what we would call this thing of a sense of a “me,” labeled on all of this, is called the “pride of the deity,” the feeling that we actually are that.

And then at the end, it’s important to remind ourselves that the “me” is not identical to any one of these components. It’s not something that exists totally separate from it. It’s not something that possesses these things or lives inside them, like living inside a house. Or is like the boss that now has all these components that it can use. And the “me” is not identical to the totality of this basis, as if the totality of all of this, as represented by this integrated light shining out were a thing, that that’s “me;” because obviously all the parts, as we saw with the aggregates, are changing every moment at different rates, etc. Each of these components has arisen from causes and circumstances, we saw, in terms of the parents and how they grew up, and the country and how it developed, etc, etc.; there’s nothing solid in this whole thing. Nevertheless – it’s our big “nevertheless” – on the basis of all of this, we are able to help others and reach enlightenment. So, that’s important; otherwise, again, one could go to a projection of impossible ways of existing that “I am this big light” and identify with that, or identify with one aspect or another and then again we get an inflated ego.

Now let me just go through very quickly the other steps, the steps that follow what we’ve been doing with this exercise. After we’ve worked through all these categories of positive influence on us such as family, and our cultural and religious background, and what we’ve studied and our teachers and friends and so on, then what could be helpful is to make a list, and list each person or item in each of these categories. Alright? So each of them, write it down, and next to it put some key words of what are the positive things that we’ve gained from each. And then, each morning, if we want to do this as a daily practice or whenever we want to do it, then for each of the categories, read through the list that we have compiled. It’s much more efficient that way, rather then trying to always remember – although ideally we shouldn’t have to rely on the list, but the list will make it much easier. But, reading a list is modeled after the usual Tibetan Buddhist practice of reading a sadhana, which is basically the script of what you are imagining and trying to meditate. It comes from that tradition.

So, for each of the groups of items, then you imagine the group of people within that group around us, and as we recite or read the positive quality that we have gained from each of them, then in a state of firm conviction and appreciation and respect, then yellow light comes to us from each. We can do it one at a time first, or if that’s not necessary, we can just skip to the second phase of that, which is first one and then you add the second on top of it, the third on top of it, so that it’s cumulative rather than first one at a time. But that could be done separately, first one at a time and then in an additive type of way.

And then at the end of each group we have a full integration of all the items within that group, let’s say our whole family, and all our friends. And even if we don’t quite have the quality, let’s say, of a friend, there’s a quality of the friend that we really admire, still we could feel inspiration to try to develop that quality. And then again, having done each of the groups, then we try to do cumulatively a feeling of each of the whole groups. So first, the first group, from the family, that whole influence, then from the whole national and religious and cultural background, and from friends, and what we’ve studied and so on, and try to eventually, in a cumulative way, put it all together. And by having key words for each of these things it makes it a little bit easier because for most of us this is going to be an enormous list.

And we’re shining with light with whole integrated thing, helping others. And we start the whole thing with quieting down and the caring mind, but then the understanding of voidness, the “me” that’s labeled on all of these things. And at the end, reaffirm that understanding of the voidness and the labeling of the “me” on all of this. And all of this, obviously, it’s very complex, and like any sort of sadhana practice, it’s something that we have to build up, through time, through practice, a little bit of this piece, a little bit of that piece, although try to do at least a general thing of the whole thing, but focused on one aspect, another aspect and gradually try to build it up.

This could take quite a while. But, perhaps you can see, those who are familiar with tantra practice, how this is modeled after tantra sadhana. You start with voidness. You then imagine that you are this Buddha-figure, and usually it’s a lot of Buddha-figures around you and a mandala, and each of them, and each of the arms, the multi-arms you have, each of the faces, each of the legs, and each of the things you are holding, stand for a different type of positive quality. And we feel we are the integrated whole of this entire thing. Now, it’s exactly the same structure, perhaps in a more accessible way. And like in a sadhana, we imagine light goes out and benefits everybody with all these qualities. We send out light making offerings to the Buddhas, and this is like showing respect for the sources of all these qualities. And at the end of the practice, again, one thinks of voidness, and then at the end of that, we arise in a simpler form, like the way that we would end this practice.

So, perhaps this type of practice can be a helpful method that is more accessible to us, utilizing certain principles that we find in one aspect of tantra – and we shouldn’t think that tantra is only this – but it’s similar to that, and accessible, and doesn’t require ritual, doesn’t require all these sort of things, as perhaps a stepping stone for us for being to then work with tantra method. Not a substitute, but as a stepping stone. Most of us, coming from a Western background, have a very very different way of thinking and different way of approaching working on ourselves than the traditional Buddhist way, and so what we require is a bridge between the two ways of thinking and ways of approaching, of working on ourselves, of helping ourselves. And so maybe this method that we’ve introduced this weekend can serve as a bridge between Western psychology and tantra.

Let’s end here with a final dedication. Think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper, and act as a cause for not only us, but everyone to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Thank you.

Also, I guess I didn’t make it so explicit that if we were to do a daily practice, what we would repeat each day is just the calming down, a caring attitude, voidness, read the list, do the practice that I’ve outlined, and end with voidness and the dedication. What we were doing here was the exploratory work, to create that list for ourselves, our own personal list. And if you want a fuller type of program of working on oneself in this vein, then I would recommend this program that I developed called Developing Balanced Sensitivity. What we’ve done here is an adjunct to this, a supplement, something more. But there we have twenty exercises, each of which is as extensive as this one in terms of dealing with different aspects that will help us to develop along the spiritual path to be of more help to others. And you can find that on my website for free in the e-book section.