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The Relevance of Buddhism in the Modern World

Alexander Berzin
Kiev, Ukraine, September 2011

Session Two: Questions and Answers

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:31 hours)

What I thought to do is to just open up our discussion to any questions or topics that you’d like me to speak about.

Question: So as far as I understand, we can have two extremes. And one is the extreme of total control of everything, and the other extreme is just doing nothing and sitting on your ass and saying, “It doesn’t matter.” So this other extreme is like doing nothing, actually, and just accepting whatever comes. So how does Buddhism define the middle path, this middle position in between the two extremes of total control and not giving a damn about anything?

Alex: The middle way is to do what we can but not overestimate the effect that it will have. I’ll give an example: I have a website. (Advertisement. That’s part of the whole thing.) Why did I start this website? And there are a few reasons. One is that I had the incredible privilege and good fortune to study with the Dalai Lama and his teachers and these great masters from the last generation who had received all their training in Tibet. I lived in India for twenty-nine years with the Tibetans, and everything that I studied I wrote down. I translated a tremendous amount of books and material. In the end I had about thirty thousand pages of unpublished material, so a lot. And I didn’t want it thrown in the garbage when I die.

So I wanted to share the authentic teachings that I had received. This was the authentic, actual tradition. And what I saw… Because I travelled around the world first as the interpreter of my teacher, and then after he died I was invited to teach around the world. And what I saw was that the level of Buddhism, the way that it was being practiced and taught in the West, was very much diluted, very much watered down. So I could just sit back of course and say, “Well, degenerate times. This is what’s happening. There’s nothing I could do.” Or I can go to that other extreme: “I’m going to be the savior of Buddhism.” Both of these are extremes.

So I thought: “Well, I have the material, and I can gather a group of people around me who can help me to make this website. (Actually, somebody else offered to make the website for me, to start with. The website now has been up for ten years; it will be ten years in November.) And I will try my best to make this material available. If people read it, wonderful. If it’s helpful, wonderful. And I can hopefully contribute a little bit, but this isn’t going to save the universe.”

And then just, on the one hand, be relaxed about it, but on the other hand, work all the time on it. And that’s what I do, except for occasionally I travel (like here) to teach. I work on this website all the time, every day, and I love it. I enjoy it. It’s not as though “Bleah, I have to do this.” And slowly, slowly, it’s growing. These days we get on average three thousand people reading it every day. And this year what it looks like is that we’ll have about one million visitors in 2011. So it is certainly having some sort of impact, but I don’t inflate it to think that this is going to turn everything and now Buddhism isn’t going to be watered down in the West. Of course not. So one rejoices in what one can do, what one can accomplish, and you don’t regret and feel badly about what you can’t accomplish.

But what’s a very important thing in the Buddhist path is called the exceptional resolve. Resolve means: “I’m going to do it.” This has to do with reaching the enlightened state of a Buddha so that you can benefit others as much as possible, benefit everybody as much as possible. And this attitude is that: “I’m going to take responsibility. And even if nobody else does it, I’m going to do it.” So this doesn’t mean that I’m the only one who can do it, but: “I don’t care if nobody helps me. Nothing’s going to stop me. I’m going to do it,” accepting all the difficulties that will be involved, and not being unrealistic about it. It’s a challenge. But as I said, you do what you can. That perseverance, by the way, is called the armor-like perseverance. It’s like wearing a suit of armor, that: “No matter how difficult it is, I don’t care. It’s not going to stop me.”

Question: So I can see that it’s more related to Buddhist religion and not to the philosophy as such. But the motivation that drives us in Buddhism and which I see as a person who tries to practice Buddhism, the motivation to achieve enlightenment and to help everybody – there is some exceptionality with that. Like I can say, “I’m going to reach that, and I’m going to save all beings.” How can we not get into this trap?

Alex: Well, there is a difference between self-confidence and obsession with oneself. When I say with this exceptional resolve, “I don’t care how difficult it is. I’m going to do it,” that needs to be done not from a position of a big ego: “How wonderful I am that I can do it and that I will do it.” You just do it because it needs to be done.

Shantideva said it very nicely. He said: Suffering has no owner. Suffering should be removed not because it’s my suffering or because it’s your suffering; suffering needs to be removed simply because it’s suffering and it hurts. So if there’s a thorn in your foot, the hand helps the foot. It doesn’t say, “Well, I’m okay up here. That’s your problem.” So like that, taking responsibility and doing things ourselves, it’s just – you do it because it needs to be done.

Since you say that you’re coming from a Buddhist background, one has to deconstruct: There’s me, the agent of the action. There’s those people that you’re doing it for. There’s what you’re doing, the action itself. And all of these are dependent on each other. You don’t just isolate one and inflate it: “Me, I’m the one that’s doing it.” It’s dependent on there being other people that will read it. And no matter what you’re doing, it requires the help and cooperation of others.

So one constantly has to meditate and keep in mind how I exist in terms of whatever it is that I’m doing and not make it an ego trip. And you know how you know it’s an ego trip? It’s when you’re feeling insecure and the energy inside you is not peaceful. Because you’re thinking about: “What are people going to think of me?” “Am I good enough?” this sort of thing. Worry about disappointing others and so on. Just do it. Just act as best as you can.

Question: I have more a theoretical question about points about our existence, about our unhappiness and causes of it. It looks similar in Buddhism and in modern psychology, modern Western psychology I mean, like positive psychology (Seligman’s psychology) or Erich Fromm’s psychoanalysis or, for example, in the existential psychology of Viktor Frankl. What is the difference between this point of view and modern psychology?

Alex: So he’s asking: What is the difference between this Buddhist psychology and various schools of Western psychology? As I said, we’re differentiating here Buddhist science and philosophy from Buddhist religion. They don’t actually exist separately, and so if we want to look at the Buddhist psychology in a fuller way, then we need to bring in past and future lives.

Happiness and unhappiness are the result of previous behavior. We act in certain destructive or constructive ways. Destructive means under the influence of disturbing emotion, like anger or attachment, greed, ignorance. And we do that compulsively, and this builds up a negative tendency, negative potential. And then, arising from various conditions, what will come from that is what we call “feeling like doing something.”

Actually, something comes before that. It’s called contacting awareness. It is the awareness of something as being pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. Why do we experience something, encounter something, as pleasant or unpleasant? Because sometimes the exact same object we can experience as pleasant (let’s say seeing a friend) or as unpleasant (I’m busy or they annoyed me, we had an argument). And this experiencing it as pleasant or unpleasant is the result of these positive or negative potentials. We’re angry, we’re greedy, we’re attached – we act in negative type of ways, and what does that do? That builds up a potential to experience things in an unpleasant way. And based on experiencing unpleasant contact with this object, we feel unhappy.

Now the compulsive aspect comes in. First we feel like doing something, like I feel like yelling at you, because it’s unpleasant contact awareness with you and I’m unhappy and, like being thirsty, I want to get that away: “I don’t like that unhappiness. Get it away from me.” So now, based on that previous tendency to yell, I’m going to feel like yelling at you. That leads to this compulsive aspect of then compulsively I’m drawn into yelling. I’m thinking to yell and then yelling. So Buddhism gives this type of quite thorough analysis. And then, because I yell, it is an unpleasant type of sensation and it will build up more causes, more tendencies to experience things as unpleasant and to be unhappy.

And all of this is deriving from confusion about me, how I exist. And what we need to focus on is that these projections, these fantasies of how I think that I exist, that I should always be happy, I should always have my own way, blah, blah, blah – all of that, that that is not corresponding to anything real. So this is the really quite unique Buddhist assertion, what we call voidness. This is referring to an absence. Something is totally absent and never was there. And what’s totally absent is something in reality that corresponds to this projection of what’s impossible, a corresponding figure in reality of what I’m projecting, which is impossible. Like a me who is the center of the universe and should always have his way. I might think like that, I might feel like that, but there’s nothing in reality that corresponds to that. Or the example that I often use: the perfect partner, like the prince or princess on the white horse who is going to fulfill me in all ways. That is a fairytale. Nobody exists like that. And when we focus on the total absence of that – “There’s no such thing” – the more and more we get convinced of that, the more and more we get used to that, then all this other compulsion and disturbing emotions based on it stop.

Question: My question, it’s more philosophical. In the beginning of your lecture you said that one of the causes of our suffering is irrationality. And what do you think – can a human being become perfectly rational?

Alex: I said one the causes of suffering was irrationality. Do I believe that human beings could become perfectly rational? Well, first of all, being rational doesn’t mean having no emotions. Being rational means that our way of thinking is valid, our way of understanding is valid. So for instance, it’s irrational to think that: “I am the only one in the world who has this problem.” That’s irrational. That doesn’t make any sense. And so when we are rational about it, that: “So many people have the same problem,” then it allows us to feel compassion and love for them, sympathy.

A lot of our thinking of course is irrational. That’s because we don’t really train ourselves to analyze: “How am I thinking? Is this correct or an incorrect way of thinking?” But with training I think it is possible to correct our thinking. This is what we do in meditation. We analyze. “I’m upset,” let’s say. You go over what’s happened during the day. “Okay, I was upset about this or about that.” Why? “I was upset because of this or that reason, which is irrational. They’re not correct reasons.” So when I analyze, when I deconstruct, I see the situation in a completely different way, which is far more rational, and then I’m not so upset. And I train myself to not be so irrational so that in daily life I’m not going to be so irrational.

In the Tibetan Buddhist training, the education system is based on logic and debate. And the point of the debate is to discover inconsistencies in your thought and in other people’s thinking. And so what happens is that you state your understanding of something and then the other person tests you and probes you to see how consistent are you about that. By yourself, you’re never going to question your understanding as critically as other people will. And the result of the debate training is that your understanding, with anything that you think – you exercise critical analysis (and after a while it doesn’t have to be verbally; it’s just that your mind thinks that way), so that you have certainty in your understanding and there’s no inconsistency, and that prepares you to be much more efficient in meditation. If you’re trying to meditate on impermanence, for example, and you don’t really understand impermanence or your understanding is confused, you’re not going to get anywhere except more confusion.

But what you have to watch out for in training and debate is becoming what I call a “debate monster.” A debate monster is someone who never knows when to stop debating. So anything that anybody says – you immediately jump on them and attack them, that: “You’re being irrational,” and you start debating with them. And that loses friends very quickly. I’ll confess that when I went to India in the beginning, coming from a university where I was very good at the university, I purposely did not go into the debate training, because I knew that I would become a debate monster. So you have to be careful.

Question: What can I do if I’ve already become a debate monster?

Alex: What you do if you’re already a debate monster is learn to cool it. It’s called patience and tolerance with others. If somebody is receptive to you and to your correcting them, then fine. But if they’re not receptive, then it’s really just idle chatter. And then you need to learn also to be diplomatic (to know when it’s appropriate to say something and when it’s not), how to say things in a way that is not offensive and that doesn’t have behind it: “I’m right, I’m so wonderful, and you’re stupid.” After all, you are trying to help somebody, not trying to put them down and show them how stupid they are. And it’s not necessary to say everything that we think. That’s a very important insight. As long as we know in our minds that what the other person says is irrational, then that’s okay.

I’ll give an example. You have a two-year-old child, and it’s time for the child to go to bed, and the child doesn’t want to go to bed, and the child starts screaming and yelling at you: “I hate you. I hate you.” Right? Now, that’s irrational. Do we believe that the child hates us? No, the child is tired. So we are tolerant. You don’t have to correct the child: “Well, you don’t really hate me,” and get into a whole discussion. This is ridiculous. You just are very patient and you deal with the child in whatever way is appropriate at the time.

So the same thing: We’re with our partner, a friend. They’re very upset. They say, “I hate you.” It’s interesting, because then what do we project onto that? “You never loved me. You’re never going to love me again. This is what you thought all the time.” Very angry. You get upset. But if we think, “Okay, this person is upset. They said that. We’re very angry. It was an irrational statement.” (You know: “I never want to see you again,” this sort of thing.) At the time, to start debating with them – “What do you mean, you never want to see me?” – this is ridiculous. I know in my mind that this is irrational, they’re upset, and so I’m patient with it, and: “Okay, we’ll speak about it tomorrow.”

Question: Do you have this type of perception of reality?

Alex: Do I have this type of perception? I try to. I can’t say that I’m always successful. But I can certainly report that after studying and practicing Buddhism for… I don’t know, almost 50 years, there’s certainly improvement. It works.

Question: I have a question about work and jobs. What should be the job that can help me stay connected to this spiritual path? I have an example. I can come to work in a large legal company, but my friends say that no, this legal company is too big and it will like chew you over and you will forget about a spiritual path and you’ll get distracted. And as far as it seems, most Buddhists are either downshifters or they are freelancers. So can you somehow combine a job and work and a spiritual path?

Alex: Well, nobody said it was easy. First of all, we don’t necessarily have control over what type of work we do. In many countries now, there’s a great deal of unemployment and you’re very fortunate if you get any job. Ideally of course we try to find some type of work that we love doing, that doesn’t make us upset, that in some way is benefitting others. And while working we try to develop the various good qualities that we’re working with in Buddhism, like patience, understanding, compassion for others, etc. And so in an ideal world, if we live in an ideal world, then whatever we’re good at… we try to actually find work using our talents and abilities, but we may not be able to do that because of economic reasons and social reasons. So whatever type of work that we are able to find, if we are able to find it – use the situation; work with it. And although others at work might try to create a very stressful atmosphere, it just means that it’s more challenging for us not to get stressed in that. And try to make enough time to have at least some sort of daily Buddhist practice or spiritual practice, whatever your practice might be.

But if you’re doing some type of spiritual practice – and let’s speak here about a Buddhist practice – it’s important that it be meaningful and not just a repetition of a ritual which has become meaningless to you, because then it doesn’t have very much of an effect. So what’s most helpful is setting an intention for the day: “I’m going to try not to become upset. I’m going to try to be patient. I’m trying to be understanding,” and so on. Reviewing how we dealt with the day at the end of the day. And if we have become upset, if we have become stressed, see what steps I can take to deal with that better. If we need some methods to help calm us down, we can use Buddhist methods (for instance focusing on the breath). And even if we do all of this for just five minutes a day, it’s something. Try to find some balance in your life. And try to get to know yourself well enough to know what are your imbalances and what you need to do to balance it.

I’ll give an example. A very good friend of mine was very stressed with work, and he is a Buddhist practitioner. But what he found really very helpful was to play the piano. He had played the piano as a young man and had stopped. And just to get back and play for fifteen minutes in the morning or fifteen minutes in the evening added balance, that there was something creative, something right side of the brain rather than left side of the brain. So what you add for bringing balance doesn’t necessarily have to be a Buddhist activity. Just playing the piano, for example, is very, very helpful for him.

Participant: I have discovered that if I try and work over those situations that I might encounter in work, it’s much more helpful for the spiritual practice than just staying in the comfort zone and trying to do some practice.

Alex: That’s true. It’s only through challenges that we grow.

Participant: Not just sit at home and do chanting, but do something to actually help people to do something.

Alex: Right. Helping people is certainly far better. Actually getting your hands dirty and involved with helping people is certainly more beneficial than just sitting and saying mantras.

Question: If a person is born with an idea to be happy and the person doesn’t have the idea to suffer and then when each person encounters suffering, she doesn’t have the antidote. So a lot of people suffer, and a lot of people can’t do anything about this, so they just multiply the suffering. There is no logic in this. So why is it all happening? Why do we need this suffering? Why does this suffering exist at all?

Alex: The suffering exists because of our confusion about reality. You see, our mental activity produces an appearance, and it’s very confusing. For example, it seems as though there’s a voice going on inside our heads talking all the time. And so it feels as though there’s some little me sitting in my head, talking. That’s the author inside that’s saying: “Ooh, what do people think of me?” “What should I do now?” “I’ve got to do this now. I’ve got to do that,” worrying and so on. So it seems as though there’s a solid little me sitting in our head, but this is ridiculous if you think about it. There’s no little me sitting behind a control panel and information comes in on the screen and through the loudspeakers and then presses the buttons and gets the body to do things or the mouth to say things. That’s fantasy, isn’t it? And neuroscience would agree with that. But because it seems like that, we believe that there is that actual me that is solid, sitting in there, and that’s the one that we’re worried about. So it’s a limitation of this sort of hardware that we have.

Question: But 95% of people live with this suffering and they don’t know what to do with this. And so what – will this continue to infinity?

Alex: Yes. It will continue unless you do something about it. It doesn’t have to be like that. One needs to wake up, as it were, and to realize that this doesn’t correspond to anything real and I’m believing in a fantasy and acting on the basis of this fantasy – as if there’s a little me there that has to be defensive, it has to defend itself, it has to attack and so on.

Sometimes of course you have to defend yourself and assert yourself. That’s not at issue here. If somebody throws something at you, of course you have to put your hand up, and I mean automatically you do that. You have to defend yourself. That’s not in question.

But to realize that there’s nothing to feel insecure about; there’s nothing that you have to defend. “I don’t have to prove myself. I don’t have to prove that I’m worthy, that I’m worthy of your love,” and so on. This is ridiculous worry. It’s based on belief that there’s this little me inside that has to prove itself. And when you’re free of that, then you just act; you just act compassionately, patiently, lovingly without worrying. “If it helps, fine. If it doesn’t help – well, what can I do? I’m not God.” But unless we realize that all this garbage that I’m projecting is just garbage, this suffering is going to go on forever. And therefore we feel compassion towards those that don’t understand. And when they’re acting destructively, rather than getting angry with them and wanting to punish them, the attitude is of compassion: “They’re acting this way because they don’t know any better, like naughty children.”

Question: Buddhism has developed by being adapted in different cultures, like the culture of Tibet or in China or Thailand or whatever. And what’s your opinion? Someday will there be a time when Buddhism has been adapted into Western culture so that we will be able to practice it not as a cultural tradition of a certain nation but as a natural tradition of Western culture?

Alex: Well, in general, yes. There’s no such thing really as Buddhism outside of a cultural context. Buddha after all was Indian and taught it within an Indian context. So regardless of which country or culture that Buddhism has spread to, there’s certain basic Indian aspects of it that are fundamental to this way of thinking. What I’m referring to is rebirth under the influence of karma; the aim of liberation from rebirth by gaining knowledge and understanding to counter ignorance; the possibility of becoming a Buddha, an enlightened being; the belief in many other life forms besides human and animal. So all of these things are found as sort of this general cultural envelope of Buddhism no matter where it has gone. Then there are specific cultural things of that culture that are… they make variants of this.

So I make a difference between what I call Dharma-LiteDharma is the Buddhist teachings – and the Real Thing Dharma. Dharma-Lite is a low-calorie version, low-caffeine version, in which there’s no idea of rebirth and so on. Just for this lifetime. Which is fine, but it reduces – to get back to your question – Buddhism to merely a form of psychology. And beneficial, no doubt, and it has its distinctive features. But it’s not the real thing, the authentic Dharma. So if Western Buddhism were to become only a Dharma-Lite version of Buddhism, I think that that would be a great loss. And so that is part of what I try to do with my website, is to try to at least show the real thing.

But there are Western developments that can be added to the traditional Asian presentations that would be very helpful for our way of understanding. We as Westerners think in a historical type of way, and so we like to understand the development of ideas over time. We’re very good at comparing systems – that’s the way that we learn – “Well, what is the view of voidness in this school as compared to that school, and how did it develop?” We understand things through understanding their differences. So this I think will be an integral feature of Western Buddhism, is bringing into it and melding together with it our more what we would call scientific way of understanding Buddhism and not just: “Well, it’s written in this scripture, and so that’s the way it is.”

And then what His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always trying to do is bring together science with Buddhism, particularly brain science and so on. In Buddhism there’s no discussion of the brain, actually, and so that is not in the slightest bit contradictory to the Buddhist teachings and can supplement very well. And also the discussions of particle physics and quantum physics and cosmology and all these sort of things – the Dalai Lama says, and Buddha said, “You only accept things that can be verified as truth. And if it’s not true, forget it.” And this is not with the chauvinistic attitude that: “Well, everything is in the Buddhist scriptures. Buddha said it long ago, and there’s nothing new that we can learn. We told you that this is the way that it was.” Not with that chauvinistic attitude, but if there’s anything that’s imprecise in the Buddha’s teachings, correct it according to what is found by science. So like that.

Superficial Western changes, why not? The Tibetans certainly don’t have the same type of music, the same type of flower offerings, these sort of things, as the Indians had, so we don’t have to have the same thing as the Tibetans. It’s trivial. It’s ornament. But whatever Western elements we bring in, music, etc., it’s very important that it be very respectful and dignified and not just banal and ordinary.

So that brings us to the end of our session, and I want to thank you very much. Thank you.