The Relevance of Buddhism in the Modern World
Session One: The Four Noble Truths
This evening I’ve been asked to give just a very general talk about the relevance of Buddhism in modern life. And actually that’s quite interesting, to think in terms of why are we talking about its relevance in modern life as opposed to its relevance to life in general. Is there anything special about our modern life? And I think… [phone rings] There’s cell phones, your mobile phones that make these noises. Yes, that’s different in modern life. You didn’t have that even fifteen years ago. But the general human condition has been the same throughout time. People have gotten into arguments with each other always, haven’t they? People have been unhappy, frustrated, and nobody finds relationships, a close relationship with others, terribly easy. And everybody’s life in one way or another is filled with worry, whether we’re worried about the economic difficulties of the present age or we are worried thousands of years ago about a drought that is causing our crops not to grow in the field. So I think that Buddhism has something to offer and is relevant in all times, not just our own times.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama makes a distinction between Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist religion. And he says that Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy have a great deal to offer to everybody. We don’t have to really look at or be interested in Buddhist religion in order to benefit from the teachings that are available, the insights that are available, in the Buddhist science and philosophy.
Buddhist science is dealing with psychology, a very deep analysis of how the mind works, how the emotions work, and how perception works. It also has a great deal to offer in the area of logic and also insights into cosmology. Buddhist philosophy deals with reality, how do we understand reality and how do we deconstruct our fantasies and projections about reality. So these are things that can be helpful to anybody without having to get into the more religious aspects of reincarnation and liberation and enlightenment and all of these sort of things. And even meditation is something that can be useful to anybody as a way of training our minds and helping us to develop more beneficial attitudes toward life.
Then what I’d like to address this evening is the relevance of Buddhist psychology and philosophy. The main aim of both of them, and not actually just both of them but the religious aspects as well, is to eliminate suffering and unhappiness. We have a great deal of mental suffering and problems because of emotional difficulties, psychological problems. We get a lot of problems because of being irrational and out of touch with reality. And so these are things that the Buddhist teachings can help us to overcome.
Buddhism as a religion of course is talking about overcoming problems in future lifetimes and gaining liberation from rebirth and becoming an enlightened Buddha. But if we look just in terms of the psychology and philosophy, then they can help us to minimize our suffering and problems in this lifetime too.
The main structure of Buddha’s teachings was what he called the four noble truths. Noble here is just a term coming from Sanskrit which is referring to those who have seen reality. And these are true facts about life that those who have seen reality understand as being true or know as being true.
The first true thing is suffering. What is true suffering? What are truly the problems that we all face?
Well, the first problem is unhappiness. And of course there can be many gradations of unhappiness. Even when we are in pleasurable situations, in pleasant company, having pleasant, nice food, we can still be unhappy. And even if we are in pain, we can still be happy without complaining and without being upset and self-preoccupied, as in being at peace and accepting our situation and being concerned that even if we’re in pain, with let’s say cancer or something like that, that we don’t upset our family. So unhappiness. That’s the first type of major problem that we all face.
The second type of problem is a little bit unusual, and so most people wouldn’t see this as a problem, but it’s our ordinary happiness. What’s the problem with our ordinary happiness? It doesn’t last, it’s never satisfying—we never have enough—and it changes. And so we’re happy for a while, and then all of a sudden our mood changes and we’re no longer happy; we’re unhappy. And if our ordinary happiness were really true ultimate happiness, then the more we had of something that made us happy, the happier we would become. But consider ice cream, which many of us like. In theory then, the more ice cream we ate at one time the happier we should become. But after a certain point we’re no longer happy eating that ice cream and the more we ate of it the sicker we would become. So this ordinary happiness that we strive after is problematic as well. It’s not really ideal, is it?
It’s a very interesting point. I always think to ask oneself: How much of your favorite food do you have to eat in order to enjoy it? Would one little taste be enough? “I’ve enjoyed it and okay, now what’s next?” It’s not like that though is it? We want to eat more and more and more. So even enjoyment is not satisfying.
The third type of problematic situation is our compulsive existence. Compulsive means that we have no control over it. Like for instance compulsively singing some stupid song in our head and we can’t get it to stop. Or compulsively having very negative thoughts, compulsively worrying, compulsively talking all the time, and compulsively acting in negative ways. It can be compulsively being a perfectionist. Actually, this whole aspect of compulsion is what karma is talking about in Buddhism, that it gets us, without any control, into repeated type of behavior. And even if it’s compulsive so-called “good behavior,” like trying to be perfect all the time, we’re never satisfied, are we? And it’s very, very stressful. It’s not pleasant at all.
So whether it is destructive or constructive, compulsive behavior is not at all wonderful. It’s very problematic. Especially when we compulsively act and speak and think with anger, greed or attachment, jealousy… Being obsessed with jealous thoughts about our partner; we’re very paranoid and suspicious. Very unpleasant, isn’t it? So what would be wonderful if we could overcome is this compulsive aspect of our thinking, speaking, and acting.
Now, what Buddhism says is that we need to look within ourselves for the causes of these problems. It’s easy to blame our problems on external factors. I’m angry because of the economy, or because of the weather, or the politics, or something like that. They’re conditions for certain habits to manifest, habits within ourselves. Like the habit to complain. Well, we can say the problem is external, what we’re complaining about, but actually the problem is our compulsive complaining. So it doesn’t matter what’s happening externally; that’s just the condition for us to complain about it: “It’s never good enough,” this type of complaining.
So one of the main points in Buddhism is that how we experience life is basically up to us. Life is going to go up and down, and we can experience it in a very disturbing type of way, or we can experience it with peace of mind. It’s all up to us really. And so what we need to do is examine within ourselves: What are the problems? What’s causing my problems? What’s causing my unhappiness, my ordinary type of happiness, my compulsiveness? What are its causes? And what Buddhism says is that we need to go deeper and deeper and deeper in order to discover what really is the true cause of our problemas. We can say, “My problem is a bad temper,” for example, but why do I have a bad temper? We can go deeper than that. And what we find, what these highly realized beings saw, was the true cause of our problems was confusion, confusion about how I exist, how others exist, how everything exists; so confusion about everything around me, confusion about everything that’s happening to me. And rather than seeing the reality of all these things, what we do is we project all sorts of fantasies onto reality.
And what we project are impossible ways of existing. Like for instance, with regard to ourselves, that: “I should always have my way. Everybody should like me. Everybody should pay attention to me. What I have to say and what I think is important.” You can see that with this blogging and text messaging and social networking. “What I have to say is important. The whole universe has to know it. I just had breakfast this morning. Everybody wants to know that, what I had for breakfast.” And if not enough people clicked “I like it” to what I’ve had for breakfast this morning, I’m completely upset the whole day.
Or another false projection on ourselves is that: “I should always be in control.” We go into a situation and I should have everything under control: I understand everything and I’ll get everything to work the way I want it to work. “I’m going to get everybody in my office to do things exactly how I want them to, everybody in my family to do everything that I want them to.” This is absurd, this is impossible—we all know that—but it’s based on this projection that: “My way of doing things is the right way of doing things. Everybody else’s way is wrong, not as good.”
Or we project onto somebody that: “You must love me,” that: “This one is special.” It doesn’t matter that other people might love me, my parents or my dog or whatever, but this one has to love me. And if they don’t, “Ow, I’m so upset.” I’m always reminded when I think of that of these large colonies of penguins in Antarctica. There’s tens of thousands of penguins and they all look alike to us, and this one penguin comes along and out of all these tens of thousands of penguins, it’s that one over there: “That’s the one that is so special, and I want that one to love me.” But that is also a fantasy, a projection, that this one penguin or this one human being is more important than everybody else and so special and the others don’t matter.
So we inflate ourselves (“I’m so special”) or we inflate somebody else (“You’re so special”). Or we inflate something that’s happening to us. For instance, I’m having a problem with my child who is not doing well in school, and then it’s as if I’m the only one in the universe who has this problem. Or I have a pain in my back, or something like that. Or I’m feeling stressed. It’s as if nobody else has this problem, I’m the only one, and it’s the most horrible thing in the world. Or “ Nobody can understand me,” as if I’m so difficult to understand. “Everybody else is pretty easy. Nobody can understand me.”
So we inflate all of these things, which is a projection. We inflate, project onto them something impossible, and then we believe it. And then we feel insecure about this. This is what gives it away, this projection not being firmly based. We’re insecure about it. We all feel insecure. Then we have various emotional strategies to try to make this all important me secure. For instance, this me who should always have his or her way. When we don’t get our way, what do we do? We get angry, we push something away: “This isn’t the way that I want it to be.” Or if things are going the way we like it, we get very attached to it: “If I can get everything around me the way that I like it, then that will make me feel secure.” Or we get very greedy, attachment, desire, etc. And if somebody else gets their way and I don’t, then I’m very jealous: “I want it for myself.” And then compulsively we act out these disturbing emotions. We yell at somebody with anger, or think compulsively terrible thoughts of jealousy and so on, or greed.
So this is—all of that—is described as the true cause of our problems. We’re unhappy. What do we do? We complain: “Poor me, I’m so unhappy.” And we are happy, our ordinary happy, and we never have enough of it. We are attached to it, and we’re never satisfied; we always want more. And what’s very interesting: if you observe yourself, do you find that sometimes you’re like a dog? You know, the dog is eating its food but it’s always looking around to make sure that nobody else, no other dog, is going to come and take it from them. So “I’m having my happiness. I’m having things going the way that I like it. But maybe somebody else is going to take it from me.” So we’re insecure.
It’s amazing, the more that we analyze and look within ourselves, what’s going on. “I’m happy but maybe I could be happier.” “I’m unhappy. It’s going to last forever. Poor me. I’m never going to get out of this depression.” All of this is circling around this confusion about how I exist.
If I have something—well, that’s what I have. I have this watch. Fine, I have this watch. It works. If it didn’t work I could get it fixed. But to sit here and look at somebody else’s watch and “Ooh, they have a better watch than I have,” then the problems begin, don’t they? “Oh, my watch isn’t as good as her watch. Why do I only have this poor watch? How can I get a better watch? If people see me wearing this cheap watch, what are they going to think of me?” That’s a big one, isn’t it, a big problem. So many problems are involved with then worrying about my self-image, what other people are going to think of me. Like myself: I’m a teacher, so: “Oh, the great teacher should have a good watch.” I have a cheap watch, so what? This is the insight to have: “So what? What good does it matter what kind of watch I have? For the time. That’s all I care.”
Or the other way around: I could say, “Well, I’m supposed to be the Buddhist teacher, and so I should be humble. I shouldn’t have expensive things, because then people will only think I’m in it for the money,” thinking like that. Then I would be very proud of the fact that I have a cheap watch, and I would want to actually make it quite visible to everybody: “Look how cheap my watch is. I’m so humble. I’m so Buddhist.” And of course that’s a very unpeaceful state of mind, to be like that.
So that’s suffering. That’s what Buddhism is talking about, how to get rid of that. This is ridiculous, that we have it. And all of this suffering is based on our attitudes, particularly our attitude about ourselves.
So the third noble truth—the third thing that these highly realized beings saw was that it’s actually possible to get rid of all these problems. It’s possible to achieve a true stopping of them so that they never recur again. It’s not just go to sleep, and while I’m asleep I don’t have the problems, but when I wake up they’re back again. We don’t want that kind of solution.
And why would we say that it’s possible to get rid of these problems forever? Is it just wishful thinking? Or is it in fact something that could come about? And what Buddhism says is that it is possible to get rid of all of these problems forever because the nature of our mind is pure. And then we have to understand what that means. What it means is that our mental activity… This is what we mean by mind in Buddhism. We’re not talking about some sort of machine sitting in our head that does thinking. We’re talking about mental activity. But rather our mental activity goes on and on and on. And mental implies emotions and perception, everything. And that basic mental activity doesn’t necessarily have to be mixed with confusion. It doesn’t have to be mixed with disturbing emotions, like anger and so on. That’s not part of its nature.
Now, it might seem as though we’re always angry or always confused. As in—I’m sure you’ve experienced this, because I experience it quite a lot—when you have a song going through your head over and over and over again. It seems as though I can never get it to stop. I wake up in the morning, and there it starts again. It’s so stupid, but it’s compulsive. But it’s not part of the actual essential nature of my mental activity. If it were, it should have been there from the moment I was born, all the way up until now, always. And my mental activity doesn’t exist in this impossible way, that it always has this stupid song going on in it. That’s impossible. And actually I could counter this song going on in my head. I could counteract it by, for example, counting my breath. That’s a very easy way to at least stop it temporarily. Just start counting your breath up to eleven over and over again. If you’re really focusing and concentrating on that, the song stops. So that means that the song isn’t an intrinsic part of our mental activity.
Same thing with disturbing emotions. We can counter them with counteracting forces. We can change our attitudes. By a change of attitude, our whole experience will change. We could be doing something in our work and we can look at it as: “Oh, this is so difficult, so horrible. I’m never going to be able to solve it,” and then we really suffer. Or we could change our attitude and look at it as a challenge: “This is a real challenge. It’s an adventure to try to figure out. Let’s see if I can do it,” like working out a puzzle. I mean, look at how we approach computer games (some of you might play computer games). You could look at it as: “Oh, this is much too difficult. I could never play this game.” Or you could look at it as fun: “This is an adventure. I’m going to try to figure it out. I’m going to try to master this game,” and then even if it’s difficult, it’s fun. So everything depends on changing our attitude.
And in terms of confusion, confusion about how I exist and how you exist and everything around me exists, there’s an exact counterforce to that: Rather than not knowing how things exist, I know how things exist. Rather than knowing incorrectly, I know correctly.
So that is the fourth noble truth. It’s called the true path usually, but what it means is a true way of understanding. That true way of understanding will counteract a false way of understanding. You can go back and forth of course. That’s indecision—is it like this, is it like that? But once we become certain that: “This is the way how things exist. This other way that I thought that it existed, that’s impossible, that’s absurd.” Then with that certainty, we stick with the correct understanding.
For example, “I thought I was the center of the universe, that I’m the most important and I should always have my way.” Which is countered by: “Well, who am I? I’m nothing special. Everybody is the same. Why should I be the only one that has my way?” So that makes a lot of sense actually, that: “I’m nothing special. I’m equal to everybody else.” And how do we know this? Well, if I were the center of the universe, the only one who should have his own way, everybody else should agree. Now, why don’t they agree? Is it because they’re stupid, or what? And what about the people who lived and died before I was born—should they also think that I’m the most important one? And why should I only get my way and they don’t get their way?
So we analyze. This is very important, to think: The way that I am projecting and dealing with the world, does this make any sense whatsoever? And if it doesn’t make any sense, then why am I compulsively acting as if it were true—that I should always have my way, that I should always be in control of what’s happening around me? That’s just banging my head against the wall. And so when I find myself starting to act like that, I’m going to try to notice it. And as soon as I notice it, then I can say to myself, “This is ridiculous,” and then just stop, don’t act it out. Our behavior may be compulsive. That’s because we’re not aware of what’s going on.
And of course it’s not easy to stop thinking in a certain way. But as with the example of the song repeatedly going through our head and we could counter it, or at least put a stop to it temporarily, with counting our breath, we can do that also with compulsive worry, compulsive thoughts, and “I’m so frustrated,” “I’m so upset,” and so on. Even if I can’t analyze and understand very deeply what really is causing my problem, you could at least not go on that trip of thinking like that. Count the breath. In other words, calm down. Take a little bit of a break, as it were, in terms of this almost a rush of worry, a rush of “Why isn’t it going the way that I want it to go?” This type of stress. And then when we’re a little bit more calm, we can ask ourselves, “ Why do I expect that everything should go the way that I want it to go? Am I God? Who am I?”
“Why should everybody like me?” That’s always a great example. “Not everybody liked the Buddha, so what do I expect—that everybody’s going to like me?” So that helps us to be a little bit more realistic. There’s some very basic facts about life. You can’t please everybody. “Well, I’d love to please everybody,” but sorry, you can’t please everybody. Whether we please them or not is up to them, up to their attitude. I can’t control that. That’s a very big insight, isn’t it? Whether people are receptive to me or not is a result of many, many causes, many conditions, not just what I do. And so that means that we try our best of course, but don’t expect the impossible. “I’m going to try to do well, but nobody’s perfect. Buddha’s perfect. I’m not a Buddha, thank you very much."
So true understanding, true path, means deconstruct and try to counteract our confusion with clarity of understanding of how I exist, how you exist, how everybody exists, how everything exists.
So let’s take an example supposedly relevant in our modern life. Let’s say we are stuck in traffic and we’re getting delayed, or you have to stand in a long queue for something, and we are experiencing that with unhappiness, and we are compulsively thinking with negative thoughts filled with impatience and anger. So it’s a situation in which you don’t have to believe in rebirth to deal with this, but the basic insights of Buddhist science and philosophy can help us in that situation. So we analyze, we deconstruct: What’s going on? I’m unhappy. Okay, I’m unhappy. We could just say, “So what, I’m unhappy?” But rather than “So what, I’m unhappy?” we are focused on that unhappiness, and we are obsessed with it; we are projecting on to it that it’s going to last forever.
The image that is used here in Buddhism is we’re like a thirsty person, a thirsty man, and we’re just craving for that water like we’re dying of thirst. So this unhappiness is like being so thirsty and “I’ve got to have this water.” “I’ve got to get rid of this, and I can’t wait until I get free of this unhappiness,” like “I can’t wait until I can get a drink of water.”
And it’s interesting that this image of thirst is also applied to when we’re feeling happy, our ordinary happiness. We don’t want it to end, this happiness, and it’s like still being thirsty. Imagine what it’s like when you’re really, really thirsty and you take that first sip of water. What is the attitude? We’re so thirsty that we don’t want just one sip of that water; we want it more and more, not to stop. And so this is a very interesting thing to analyze in ourselves. “Am I just thirsting after happiness?” We all want to be happy. Nobody wants to be unhappy. This is a general principle that is accepted in Buddhism. There’s nothing wrong with that. But is my attitude toward that like somebody who is just dying of thirst and I’m thirsting after happiness? And if I get a little bit of it—“Don’t take it away!” And if I don’t have it—“Oh, I can’t stand it!” Or the third possibility is neutral: “I’m not thirsty now, but I’m worried maybe I’m going to get thirsty later,” so I’m always walking around carrying a bottle of water, right, because I’m worried. So even when we are not particularly happy, not particularly unhappy, still we’re thirsty because we’r e afraid that we’re going to be thirsty.
This is what’s going on with my focusing on my unhappiness. Right? Stuck in traffic, and like a thirsty man: “I have to get out of this. I have to get out of this unhappy state of mind that I’m in.” So we’re obsessed with that unhappiness, and we think it’s going to last forever. So that’s the first thing we focus on, is how unhappy I am.
The second thing that we focus on, what comes next, is focusing on the traffic, or the long line that we’re waiting on in the supermarket or wherever, as if it’s going to last forever. “This traffic is never going to end.” “I’m never going to get my turn and get out of this store.” And then we’re focusing on me: “Poor me, I’m going to be late.” “Poor me, I can’t stand it that I’m stuck in this traffic.” “I have to have my way. I can’t stand it that I’m not in control of this situation. I want to be in control, that I can just go as quickly as I want to.” “I’m not in control,” and we can’t stand that.
So what is going on here is a complete obsession with a projection, a projection about the unhappiness that we’re feeling, a projection about the traffic, and a projection about me. And what we need to do then is deconstruct all three of these. And for that we use the general principles that we find in Buddhist philosophy, and it’s very, very helpful. “I’m unhappy now, so what?” Happiness and unhappiness go up and down. If you think about it, our moods are constantly going up and down. “So now I’m unhappy. Nothing special. It’s never going to last forever.”
And whether I feel happy or unhappy is arising because of causes and conditions. So there’s some conditions, like for instance: “I’m unhappy because I have an appointment and I’m going to be late if I’m stuck in traffic.” But a great Buddhist master, Shantideva, Indian master, gave a very useful piece of advice: If it’s a situation that you can change, why worry? Just change it. And if it’s a situation that you can’t change, why worry? It’s not going to help.
“I can’t just race through this traffic. I’m stuck here. I can’t change it, so I just need to accept the reality of it.” That’s something that a lot of us have a great difficulty with, most of us do, accepting reality. And is there something we can do? Well, if we have a mobile phone, we can call the person that we have the appointment with and say, “Look, I’m stuck in traffic. I’m going to be late.” And whether they’re disappointed or not disappointed—it’s not nice to say, but that’s their problem, because this is the reality.
Now, what you have to watch out for here is feeling guilty. “Oh, I feel so bad that I can’t make the appointment, that I’m disappointing you.” That’s guilt. What is the faulty thinking here? The faulty thinking is that: “I should have been able to prevent this, so it’s my fault that there’s a lot of traffic on the road.” Well this is ridiculous, isn’t it? How could it be my fault? And so I could have left earlier, that’s true, but still there could have been an accident on the road. And even if I left earlier, I could have still been late. So not everything is in my control, and not everything that happens in the universe is my fault. So “I’m not happy that I’m late, but it’s not my fault, sorry.” And that unhappiness that we’re feeling being stuck in traffic—well, we could listen to some music; we could enjoy ourselves while we’re there; we might as well make the best of it if we’re stuck. So deconstruct the unhappiness.
Then we have to deconstruct the traffic. The way that I am regarding this traffic is: “This is horrible. This is the worst thing in the world.” And of course we think it’s going to last forever: we’re never going to get through. And we have to analyze: This traffic arises from many, many causes. And anything that arises from causes, that’s dependent upon causes and conditions, will change; it can’t last. When various conditions that it’s dependent upon change, the situation itself will change.
Let’s say there was an accident on the road, on the highway. So that’s one of the things that is causing the traffic. It could also be that it happens to be rush hour, when everybody’s going to work or coming home from work. But eventually whoever it is that will remove the car that had an accident and take care of the people who were hurt will come, and that car that was broken down will be removed from the highway, and the traffic will go again. So what it’s dependent on, the condition of that accident, will be past. So I understand then that with a change of conditions and so on that is causing this traffic, it will change; it will end. So that traffic is no longer a terribly monstrous thing. That’s very, very important, to see clearly everything in a larger context of all the causes, all the conditions that are affecting it, rather than viewing things as if they just existed by themselves— traffic, traffic jam—as if it established itself and was just sitting there totally unrelated to any causes, conditions.
So we have a more realistic attitude about the traffic. And then we have to deconstruct our attitude toward ourselves in this traffic. We are obsessed with: “Poor me. I can’t get to where I want to go on time.” But if we look at the reality, I’m not the only one stuck in this traffic. There’s everybody else, and everybody else also wants to get to where they’re going. I’m not the only one. And we can look around at the people in the other cars next to us, right, left, etc., and if we see that they are really upset, this helps us to develop compassion, which is the wish that they be free of having such a difficult time emotionally being in the traffic and the difficult time of being in traffic as well.
Because, you see, when we’re focused just on me and “I have this problem,” the range of our thought is very, very small. It’s only centered on me, and it’s very tight. Tightly we’re grasping onto “Poor me.” You’re uptight. Everything inside you… all your energy is tied up tightly. Whereas if we think in terms of everybody also stuck in this traffic, then the whole energy of the mind is much broader, and because the range of our thinking is so broad and expansive, it’s much more relaxed. Actually, that’s a way to overcome the unhappiness that we’re feeling there, because part of the suffering of that unhappiness is holding onto it so tightly with such a small perspective of me. Then our whole state of mind is completely more pleasant, more relaxed. You don’t suffer so much. It doesn’t change the fact that we’re still going to be late for our appointment. There’s nothing I can do about that, but I can do something with the way that I experience being stuck in traffic.
And that is the relevance of Buddhism in not only modern life but in all life. We try to pay attention to our emotions, our attitudes, and our projections which are the basis for these attitudes, and the compulsiveness of our thinking and speaking and acting that these projections bring about, and we try to apply deconstruction methods to see the reality of what’s going on more clearly. And in this way, Buddhist science and philosophy are relevant in daily life to minimize the suffering that we cause ourselves. And as we experience the up and downs of being happy, being unhappy in our daily life, we try not to be a thirsty person. When we’re happy—well, enjoy it; it’s not going to last. But don’t make a big deal out of it. Just enjoy it for what it is. And if we’re unhappy—well, so what? Sometimes everybody is unhappy. No big deal. We just continue doing whatever it is that we need to do. And in this way go through life without making a big deal about anything. In other words, without inflating things with our projections. In that way actually life becomes very joyous, because in fact we can see the joy in all the everyday, little things of life without being totally— when, I should say, we aren’t totally preoccupied with me, me, me and what I want.
So maybe that’s enough for the moment. And I believe we are having a tea break (without making a big deal out of it), and then we’ll continue. Perhaps you’ll have some questions.
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