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The Relevance of Buddhism in the Modern World

Alexander Berzin
Kiev, Ukraine, September 2011

Session One: The Four Noble Truths

edited transcript

Is Buddhism relevant in our modern world? Well first, it is quite interesting to think about why we are talking about the relevance of Buddhism in modern life as opposed to its relevance to life in general. Is there anything special about our modern life? Certainly there are cell phones and other technology – those phenomena are different in modern life, compared to earlier periods of history. Only fifteen years ago there were no mobile phones – but the human condition in general has been the same throughout time. People have always had arguments with each other. People have been unhappy and frustrated. No one finds close relationship with others very easy. Everyone’s life, in one way or another, is filled with worry; whether we are worried about the economic difficulties of the present age, or we were worried thousands of years ago about a drought causing crop failure. Buddhism has something to offer and is relevant in all times, not just our own time.

Buddhist Science, Buddhist Philosophy, and Buddhist Religion

His Holiness the Dalai Lama makes a distinction between Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist religion. He says that Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy have a great deal to offer to everyone. We do not need to look at, or be interested in, Buddhist religion in order to benefit from the teachings and insights that are available in Buddhist science and philosophy.

Buddhist science deals with psychology; it is 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 insights into cosmology. Buddhist philosophy deals with reality – how we understand reality and how we deconstruct our fantasies and projections about reality. These are things that can be helpful to anyone, without having to accept the more religious aspects of Buddhism such as reincarnation, liberation, and enlightenment. Furthermore, meditation is an activity that can be useful to anyone, as a way of training the mind and helping to develop more beneficial attitudes toward life.

The Relevance of Buddhist Psychology and Philosophy

The main goal of both Buddhist psychology and philosophy (as well as the religious aspects of Buddhism) is to eliminate suffering and unhappiness. All of us have a great deal of mental suffering and psychological problems because of emotional difficulties. We have many problems because of being irrational and out of touch with reality. These are things that the Buddhist teachings can help us to overcome.

Buddhism as a religion is, of course, talking about overcoming problems in future lifetimes, gaining liberation from rebirth, and becoming an enlightened Buddha. But if we look just in terms of the psychology and philosophy, 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” is a term that is referring to those beings who have seen reality. These are true facts about life that those who have seen reality understand as being true or know as being true.

True Suffering: Unhappiness, Happiness, and Compulsion

The first true truth is suffering. What is true suffering? What are the problems that we all face?

The first problem is unhappiness. There can be many gradations of unhappiness; even when we are in pleasurable situations, in pleasant company, eating delicious food, we can still be unhappy. On the other hand, even if we are in pain, we can still be happy without complaining, and without being upset and self-preoccupied; we can still be at peace, accepting our situation and being concerned that we do not upset our family. So unhappiness is the first type of major problem that we all face.

The second type of problem is a little bit unusual, and so most people would not see this as a problem; the second type of suffering is our ordinary happiness. What is the problem with our ordinary happiness? The problem is that it does not last, it is never satisfying, we never have enough, and it changes. We are happy for a while, and then all of a sudden our mood changes and we are no longer happy – we are suddenly unhappy. 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. Consider ice cream – in theory, the more ice cream we eat at one time, the happier we should become. But after a certain point we are no longer happy eating that ice cream, and if we continue to eat it, we will become sick. So this ordinary happiness that we strive after is problematic as well.

The issue of happiness is a very interesting point. I often think: How much of my favorite food do I need to eat in order to enjoy it? Would one little taste be enough? Would I be able to say I have enjoyed it and I do not need any more? In fact, what I have found is that it is not like that. 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 our minds or our behavior. For instance, compulsively singing some silly song in our head – we cannot get it to stop. Or compulsively having very negative thoughts, compulsively worrying, compulsively talking all the time, and compulsively acting in negative ways. Actually, this whole aspect of compulsion is what karma is referring to in Buddhism; karma forces us, without any control, into repeated behaviors. And even if it is compulsive so-called “good behavior,” such as trying to be perfect all the time, we are never satisfied – the compulsion to be perfect in fact is very, very stressful; it is not pleasant at all.

So whether it is destructive or constructive, compulsive behavior is not at all wonderful. It is very problematic, especially when we compulsively act, speak, and think with anger, greed, attachment or jealousy. Some people are obsessed with jealous thoughts about their partner – they are very paranoid and suspicious. This is a very unpleasant example of compulsive behavior. It would be wonderful if we could overcome this compulsive aspect of thinking, speaking, and acting.

Looking Inside Our Own Minds for the True Cause of Suffering

What Buddhism says is that we need to look within ourselves for the causes of these problems. It is easy to blame our problems on external factors; for example, I am angry because of the economy, or because of the weather, or politics. In reality, these are simply external conditions for certain habits to manifest – habits within ourselves, such as the habit to complain. We believe that the problem is external, but actually the problem is our compulsive complaining. Actually, it does not matter what is happening externally; external events are just the condition for us to complain about.

So one of the main points in Buddhism is that how we experience life is basically up to us. Life will 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 is all up to us, really. And so what we need to do is examine within ourselves: What problems do I have? What is causing my problems? What is causing my unhappiness? What is behind my ordinary type of happiness, behind my compulsiveness? What are its causes?

What Buddhism says is that we need to go deeper and deeper and deeper, in order to discover the true cause of our problems. We can say, for example, “My problem is a bad temper;” but then we need to ask: Why do I have a bad temper? What we find is that the true cause of our problems is confusion: confusion about how I exist, confusion about how others exist, how everything in the world exists, and confusion about everything that is happening to me. Rather than seeing the reality of all these things, what we do is we project all sorts of fantasies onto reality.

Projecting Impossible Ways of Thinking

We project impossible ways of existing onto reality. For instance, with regard to ourselves, we have the thought: “I should always have my way. Everyone should like me. Everyone should pay attention to me. What I have to say, and what I think, is important.” You can see examples of this in the phenomena of blogging, text messaging, and social networking. With these new technologies, the fantasy is: What I have to say is important. The whole universe has to hear what I have to say. I just had breakfast, and surely everyone wants to know what I had for breakfast. And if not enough people clicked “I like it” in response to what I ate for breakfast this morning, I am completely upset, the whole day.

Another false projection is the idea that I should always be in control. We go into a situation and feel that we should have everything under control. We think: “I understand everything and I will get everything to work the way I want it to work. I will get everyone in my office to do things exactly how I want them to. I will get everyone in my family to do everything that I want them to.” This is absurd. This is impossible – we all know that – but it is based on the projection that: My way of doing things is the right way of doing things. Everyone else’s way is wrong and not as good as my way.

Or we project onto someone the thought “You must love me,” or “This person is special.” We believe that it does not matter that other people might love me, such as my parents or my dog, but this specific person must love me, and if they do not, I become very upset. I am always reminded of this concept when I think of the large colonies of penguins in Antarctica. There are tens of thousands of penguins, and they all look alike to us, but from the male penguin’s perspective, a particular female penguin comes along and out of the tens of thousands of penguins, he become attached to just that one female: “That is the one that is absolutely special, and I want that one to love me.” That is a fantasy, a projection, that this one penguin or this one human being is more important than everyone else, is so special, and the others do not matter.

So we inflate ourselves (I am special), or we inflate someone else (You are special). Or we inflate something that is happening to us. For instance, perhaps my child is not doing well in school; I feel as if I am the only one in the universe who has ever had this problem. Or I have a pain in my back, or I am feeling stressed – it is as if no one else has this problem, I am the only one, and it is the most horrible thing in the world. Or we think: “No one can understand me. Everyone else is easy to understand, but I am special.”

We inflate all of these things, which is called projecting. We project onto them something impossible, and we believe it. Then we feel insecure, which is what proves that we are projecting, that this projection is not firmly based in reality. We feel insecure, and 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 do not get our way, what do we do? We get angry, we push something away: this is not the way that I want the situation to be. Or if things are going the way we like, we get very attached to that state, thinking that 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 and attached: if someone else gets their way and I do not, I am very jealous of what they got and I want it for myself. Then we compulsively act out these disturbing emotions. We yell at someone with anger, or think compulsively terrible thoughts of jealousy or greed.

All of this is described as the true cause of our problems. We are unhappy, and what do we do? We complain: Poor me, I am so unhappy. And if we are happy, we never have enough of it. We are attached to our happiness, and we are never satisfied – we always want more. If you observe yourself, do you find that sometimes you are like a dog? When a dog is eating its food, the dog is always looking around to make sure that no other dog will come and take it away from them. So, like the dog, humans feel: I am having my happiness. I am having things going the way that I like it. But maybe someone else will take it from me. We are insecure.

The more that we analyze and look within ourselves, it is amazing what we discover. We have thoughts such as: “I am happy but maybe I could be happier. I am unhappy, and it will last forever. Poor me. I will never get out of this depression.” We discover that our mind is constantly circling around in confusion about how we exist.

An alternative way to think would be, for example, if I have something, I could be satisfied with that. For example, I have a watch. The watch works, and if it broke I could get it fixed. I could choose to be satisfied with what I have, but instead maybe I look at someone else’s watch and think: “Ooh, they have a better watch than I have.” Then the problems begin. “Oh, my watch is not as good as her watch. Why do I only have this poor-quality watch? How can I get a better watch? If people see me wearing this cheap watch, what will they think of me?”

That is a very common sentiment – concern about what other will think. So many problems are involved with worrying about self image, how others see us. In my case, I might think that the best teachers should have good watches. But another way to think is: I have a cheap watch, so what? This is the insight we need to try to have: So what? Does it really matter what kind of watch I have? My watch tells me the time, and that is all I care about.

It is also possible to have thoughts at the other extreme: instead of thinking that I should have a nice watch, I could think that I am supposed to be a Buddhist teacher, and so I should be humble. I should not have expensive things, because then people will think I am doing this for the money. 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 everyone; I would want to show off: “Look how cheap my watch is. I am so humble. I am so Buddhist.” And of course that is a very disturbed state of mind.

So that is suffering. That is what Buddhism is talking about – how to get rid of confused, worried thinking patterns. All of this suffering is based on our attitudes, particularly our attitude about ourselves.

True Stopping

The third Noble Truth that the Buddha saw is that it is actually possible to get rid of all these problems. It is possible to achieve a true stopping of them so that they never recur again. It is not just a matter of going to sleep and not experiencing my problems while I am asleep, because when I wake up my problems are back again. We do not want that kind of temporary solution.

Why would we say that it is possible to get rid of problems forever? Is it just wishful thinking? Or is it in fact something that could really happen? What Buddhism says is that it is possible to get rid of all of these problems forever, because the fundamental nature of our mind is pure. So then we need to understand what that means. When we talk about mind in Buddhism, we are not talking about some sort of machine sitting in our head that does the thinking. We are talking about all mental activity. Our mental activity goes on and on and on. And mental activity includes emotions and perceptions, not just thinking. Buddhism teaches that basic mental activity does not necessarily need to be mixed with confusion. It does not need to be mixed with disturbing emotions, like anger and so on – that is not part of its nature.

Now, it might seem as though we are always angry or always confused. Many people have the experience of hearing a song going through their head over and over and over again. It seems as though it will never stop. Upon waking up in the morning, it starts again. It is silly, but it is also compulsive. However, the song is not part of the actual essential nature of one’s mental activity. If it were, it would have been there from the moment of birth, all the way up until the present moment. But mental activity does not exist in this impossible way; it is not true that my mind always has this silly song playing in it. That is impossible. I could counter this song going on in my head. For example, I could counteract it by counting my breath. That is a very easy way to at least stop it temporarily. Start counting your breath up to eleven over and over again. If you are really focusing and concentrating, the song stops. So that means that the song is not an intrinsic part of mental activity.

Counteracting Disturbing Emotions by Changing Our Attitude

It is the same with disturbing emotions. We can challenge them with counteracting forces. We can change our attitude. With a change of attitude, our whole experience will change. I could be trying to finish a project at work, and I could look at it as very difficult – so horrible that I will never be able to finish it. Then I really suffer. On the other hand, I could change my attitude and look at it as a challenge. I could think: “This is a real challenge. It is an adventure to try to figure out. Let’s see if I can do it” – I could approach the task like working out a puzzle. Consider how we approach computer games. You could look at the game as being much too difficult, thinking that you could never play the game. Or you could look at it as fun; you could think of it as an adventure – I will try to figure it out, I will try to master this game. And then even if it is difficult, it is also fun. So everything depends on changing our attitude.

In terms of confusion about how I exist, and how you exist, and how everything around me exists, there is an exact counterforce to that. Rather than not knowing how things exist, I know how things truly exist. Rather than knowing incorrectly, I know correctly.

The True Way of Understanding Reality

Knowing correctly how things exist is the fourth Noble Truth. It is usually called the True Path, and what it means is a true way of understanding. That true way of understanding will counteract a false way of understanding. Once we become certain that this is how things exist, we realize that this other way that we thought that things existed is impossible, it is absurd. Then with that certainty, we maintain the correct understanding.

For example, one might think: “I am the center of the universe. I am the most important and I should always have my way.” That thinking is countered by: “Well, who am I, really? I am not special. Everyone is the same. Why should I be the only one that has my way?” That makes a lot of sense – the thought that: “I am nothing special. I am equal to everyone else.” How do we know this is true? Well, if I were the center of the universe, if I were truly the only one who should have his own way, everyone else should agree with that principle. So why don’t they agree? Is it because they are stupid? And what about the people who lived and died before I was born – should they also think that I am the most important one? And why should I alone get my way, and they not 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 does not make any sense, then why am I compulsively acting as if it were true – acting as if I should always have my way, that I should always be in control of what is happening around me. That is just banging my head against the wall. So when I find myself starting to act like that, I will try to notice it. And as soon as I notice it, then I can say to myself, “This is ridiculous,” and then just stop, do not act it out. When behavior is compulsive, it is because we are not aware of what is going on.

Of course it is not easy to stop thinking in a certain way. But as with the example of the song repeatedly going through our head, we can counter negative mental behavior, or at least put a stop to it temporarily, by counting our breath. We can also utilize the breath with compulsive worry, compulsive thoughts, and emotions such as frustration and upset. Even if I cannot analyze and understand very deeply the true cause of my problem, I could at least not let my negative thinking continue; I can instead count the breath. In other words, I can calm down. I can take a little bit of a break in terms of this rush of worry, the stress of thinking: Why is this situation not going the way that I want it to go? After a mental break, we are a little bit calmer and then we can ask ourselves: “Why do I expect that everything should go the way that I want it to go? Am I God?”

Another good example of illogical thinking is the belief that everyone should like me. The counter to that is: Even in the Buddha’s lifetime, not everyone liked the Buddha, so why do I expect that everyone is will like me? That helps us to be a little bit more realistic. There are some very basic facts about life, one of which is that you cannot please everyone. Maybe we want to please everyone, but unfortunately, it is not possible. Whether we please them or not is up to them – it depends on their attitude, which I cannot control. That is a very powerful insight: whether people are receptive to me or not is a result of many causes and many conditions. Their reaction to me is not solely dependent on my actions. We need to try our best, of course, but we do not expect the impossible. We intend to do well, we try to behave well, but no one is perfect. Buddha is perfect, but I am not a Buddha.

True understanding and true path means to deconstruct and try to counteract our confusion with clarity of understanding; understanding how I exist, how you exist, how everyone and everything exists.

How to Respond to a Traffic Jam

Let us take an example from our modern life. Perhaps I am stuck in traffic, which is causing me to be late for an appointment, and I am experiencing that situation with unhappiness. I am compulsively thinking negative thoughts filled with impatience and anger. This is a situation in which you do not need to believe in rebirth in order manage your thoughts. The basic insights of Buddhist science and philosophy can help us in this situation. I can analyze the situation: What is going on? I am late, and I am unhappy. We could just say: “So what, I am unhappy” and leave it at that. But rather than accepting the fact that I am unhappy, I am focused on that unhappiness, and I am obsessed with it; I am projecting on to it that unhappiness will last forever. The image that is used in Buddhism is that I am like a thirsty person, craving water as if I am dying of thirst. The unhappiness I am experiencing is like being incredibly thirsty and feeling that I must have water! In the traffic situation, I think: “I absolutely must get out of this situation, and I cannot wait until I get free of this unhappiness and frustration.” That is similar to the thirsty person thinking: “I cannot wait until I can get a drink of water.”

It is interesting that this image of thirst is also applied to when we are feeling happy. We do not want our happiness to end and we clutch it tightly. Imagine what it is like when you are extremely thirsty and you take that first sip of water. What is the attitude? We are so thirsty that we do not want just one sip of water; we want it more and more, we want to drink and drink and drink. This is a very interesting issue to analyze in ourselves. Am I simply thirsting after happiness? We all want to be happy; no one wants to be unhappy. This is a general principle that is accepted in Buddhism, and there is nothing wrong with that. But is my attitude toward gaining happiness like someone who is dying of thirst? Am I thirsting after happiness? And when I get a little bit of it, do I feel stressed? Do I think: “Do not take it away! I must not lose this happy feeling!” And if I lose that happiness, do I think: “Oh, I cannot stand it! I must find happiness again!” The third possibility is neutrality: I am not thirsty now, but I am worried that I might become thirsty later, so I carry a bottle of water everywhere, because I am worried about possibly becoming thirsty in the future. Even when we are not particularly happy and not particularly unhappy, still we are afraid that we will be very unhappy in the future.

Dealing with Our Own Unhappiness

Being stuck in traffic and feeling frustrated is similar to focusing on unhappiness. I am stuck in traffic, and like a thirsty person, I anxiously think: “I must get out of this situation. I must get out of this unhappy state of mind that I am in.” I am obsessed with that unhappiness, and I think it will last forever.

So in the difficult situation of being stuck in slow traffic and feeling frustrated, the first thing I am focusing on is how unhappy I am: “Poor me, I will be late. Poor me, I cannot stand it that I am stuck in this traffic. I must have my way. I cannot stand it that I am not in control of this situation. I want to be in control, to drive as quickly as possible.” The second thing that I am focusing on is the traffic itself, as if it will last forever: “This traffic will never end. I will be stuck here all day.” When I am not in control, I cannot tolerate it.

What is going on here is a complete obsession with a projection – a projection about the unhappiness that I am feeling, a projection about the traffic, and a projection about me. What we need to do is deconstruct all three of these projections, and for that we use the general principles in Buddhist philosophy, which are very, very helpful. The Buddhist teachings say that happiness and unhappiness go up and down. Our moods are constantly going up and down. If we know and accept that every situation changes, we can then think: “So now I am unhappy. It is nothing special. It will not last forever.”

Whether I feel happy or unhappy is arising because of causes and conditions. A great Buddhist master from India, Shantideva, gave us a very useful piece of advice: If there is a situation that you can change, why worry? Just change it. And if there is a situation that you cannot change, why worry? Worrying will not help.

So, using this principle, I can think: “I cannot race through this traffic. I am stuck here. I cannot change it, so I just need to accept the reality of it.” Accepting reality is something that most of us have a great difficulty with. Is there something we can do about the situation? Well, if I have a mobile phone, I can call the person with whom I have the appointment, and say, “Sorry, I am stuck in traffic. I will be late.” Whether they are disappointed or not disappointed is their problem. Even though that sounds a bit harsh, in fact it is true. The reality is that I am stuck, I will be late, and I have no control over how the other person reacts.

In this situation you need to be careful of feeling guilty – feeling badly that I am missing the appointment, feeling like I am disappointing my friend, the person who is waiting for me. That is guilt. There is faulty thinking here, which is the thought that I should have been able to prevent this; it is my fault that there is a lot of traffic on the road. Clearly this is ridiculous – how could the traffic jam be my fault? It is true that I could have left earlier, but there still could have been an accident on the road; I could have been late even if I had left earlier. Not everything is in my control, and not everything that happens in the universe is my fault. So instead, I can think: “I am not happy that I am late, but it is not my fault, and I will do my best to arrive as soon as I can, depending on traffic.” I can deconstruct the unhappiness that I feel being stuck in traffic; I could listen to some music; I could enjoy myself while I am there. If I am stuck, I can make the best of it.

Thinking about the Traffic Jam

Next we need to deconstruct the traffic. The way that I am regarding this traffic jam is thinking that this is horrible; this is the worst situation in the world. Of course we think it will last forever; we think that we will never get through the traffic and arrive at the destination. So we can analyze the situation: This traffic arises from many, many causes. Anything that arises from causes is dependent upon causes and conditions, and thus will change – it cannot last. When the various conditions that it is dependent upon change, the situation itself will change.

Let us say there was an accident on the road. That is one of the conditions that is causing the traffic. Eventually, the accident will be cleared from the road, any injured people will be taken to hospital, the emergency vehicles will leave, and the traffic will start moving again. The conditions of the traffic jam (the smashed cars, the police and ambulance vehicles) will be gone. With a change of the conditions causing the traffic jam, the traffic jam itself will change – the traffic problem will end. So, using this analysis we can see that traffic is no longer a terribly monstrous thing. It is very, very important to see everything in the larger context of all the causes and conditions that are affecting it, rather than viewing the situation as if it just existed by itself – as if “traffic jam” established itself and was just sitting there totally unrelated to any causes or conditions.

Broadening Our Focus to Include Others

So by using Buddhist philosophy we can have a more realistic attitude about the traffic. And then we can to deconstruct our attitude toward ourselves in this traffic. We can see that we are obsessed with “poor me” and “I cannot get to where I want to go on time.” But if we look at the reality, we can see that I am not the only one stuck in this traffic. There are people in cars all around me, and everyone else also wants to get to where they are going. I am not the only one. I can look around at the people in the other cars next to me – right, left, front and back – and if I see that they are very upset and angry, that can help me to develop compassion, which is the wish that they be free of having such a difficult time emotionally, and the wish that they also not be stuck in the traffic jam.

When I am focused only on me, the range of thought is very, very small. When my thoughts are only centered on me, my mind is very tight. I am grasping tightly onto “poor me.” Everything inside me, all my energy is tied up tightly. Whereas if I think in broader terms of all the people around me, who are also stuck in traffic, then the whole energy of my mind is much broader, and because the range of thinking is so broad and expansive, my mind is much more relaxed. Because part of the suffering of my unhappiness is holding onto it so tightly, with such a small perspective of me, if I can expand my thinking, that is an effective way to overcome the unhappiness that I am feeling. My whole state of mind is more pleasant, more relaxed; I do not suffer so much. It does not change the fact that I will be late for my appointment – there is nothing I can do about that, but I can do something about the way that I experience being stuck in traffic.

Conclusion: Using Buddhism to Analyze and Change Our Thinking

That is the relevance of Buddhism not only in modern life, but in all life. We try to pay attention to our emotions, our attitudes, and the projections we are making, which are the bases for the attitudes. We analyze the compulsiveness of our thinking, speaking, and acting. That compulsiveness is brought on by the projections we are making, and we try to apply deconstruction methods to see more clearly the reality of what is going on. In this way, Buddhist science and philosophy are relevant in daily life to minimize the suffering that we cause ourselves. As we experience the up and downs of being happy and then being unhappy in our daily life, we try not to be like a thirsty person. When we are happy we enjoy it while we have it, because it will not last. But we do not make a big deal out of it – we just enjoy it for what it is. And if we are unhappy, we remember that everyone is unhappy sometimes – it is quite normal. We just continue doing whatever it is that we need to do, and in this way we go through life without inflating the importance of anything that happens. In other words, we refrain from inflating situations with our own projections. In that way, life becomes very joyous, because when we are not totally preoccupied with “me” and what I want, then we can see the joy in all the everyday, little things of life.