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The Relevance of Buddhism in the Modern World

Alexander Berzin
Kiev, Ukraine, September 2011

Session Two: Questions and Answers

edited transcript

The Middle Way between Total Control and Total Apathy

Question: As far as I understand, there are two extremes: one is the extreme of total control of everything, and the other extreme is just doing nothing, sitting on your ass, and saying, “It does not matter.” So this other extreme is like doing nothing, and just accepting whatever comes. So how does Buddhism define the middle path, a 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 you an example: I have a website. (Advertisement!) Why did I start this website? 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 – several 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 since this was the authentic, actual tradition. 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. I translated a tremendous number of books and other materials. In the end I had about 30,000 pages of unpublished material – a lot. And I did not want it thrown in the garbage when I die. I wanted to share the authentic teachings that I had received.

What I saw in the West 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 have simply sat back and said: “Well, these are degenerate times. There is nothing I can do. It is inevitable that the teachings will be distorted.” Or I could have gone to the other extreme: “I am going to be the savior of Buddhism.” Both of these are extremes.

Instead 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, someone offered to make the website for me, to start with.) And I will try my best to make this material available. If people read it, wonderful. If it is helpful, wonderful. I can hopefully contribute a little bit, but I realize that this is not going to save the universe.”

On the one hand, I am relaxed about it, but on the other hand, I constantly work on it. That is how I spend my time, except for occasionally I travel to teach. I work on the website all the time, every day, and I love it – I enjoy it. It is not as though I feel it is an unpleasant chore. And slowly, slowly, it is growing. The website has been up since November 2001, and these days we get an average of 3,000 people reading it every day. We expect to have about a million visitors in 2011. So it is certainly having some sort of impact, but I do not inflate it to think that it is going to turn everything around, and now Buddhism is not going to be watered down in the West – of course not. So, you rejoice in what you can do, what you can accomplish, and you do not regret and feel badly about what you cannot accomplish.

There is a very important concept on the Buddhist path called the “exceptional resolve.” Resolve means I will definitely do it. This has to do with reaching the enlightened state of a Buddha, so that you can benefit others as much as possible. The attitude is that I will take responsibility. Even if no one else does, I will. This does not mean that I am the only one who can do it, but I do not care if I do not get any help. Nothing is going to stop me. I am going to do this. It means accepting all the difficulties that will be involved, and not being unrealistic about it – understanding that there will be challenges. But as I said, you do what you can. That perseverance, by the way, is called the “armor-like perseverance.” It is like wearing a suit of armor, that no matter how difficult it is, I do not care. It is not going to stop me.

Egotistical Pride about Striving for Enlightenment

Question: My question is more related to Buddhist religion and not to the philosophy as such. My question is about the motivation that drives us in Buddhism, which is the motivation to achieve enlightenment in order to help everyone – there is something quite exceptional about that. I can say I am going to reach that goal, and I am going to save all beings. But how can I avoid the trap of feeling egotistical pride about reaching enlightenment?

Alex: Well, there is a difference between self-confidence and obsession with oneself. When I say with this exceptional resolve, “I do not care how difficult it is. I am going to do it,” that needs to be said not from a position of a big ego, as in: “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 that suffering has no owner. Suffering should be removed not because it is my suffering or because it is your suffering; suffering needs to be removed simply because it is suffering and it hurts. So if there is a thorn in your foot, the hand helps the foot, and removes the thorn. It does not say, “Well, I am okay up here. That thorn is your problem.” So like that, taking responsibility and doing things ourselves – you do it because it needs to be done.

Since you say that you are coming from a Buddhist background, one has to deconstruct: There is me, the agent of the action; there are those people that you are working to help; there is what you are doing, the action itself; and all of these are dependent on each other. You do not just isolate one and inflate it: “Me, I am the one that is doing it.” Your actions are dependent on there being other people who will be the recipient of your efforts. And no matter what you are 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 am doing, and not make it an ego trip. How do you know it is an ego trip? It is an ego trip when you are feeling insecure and the energy inside you is not peaceful. Maybe you are worrying about what people will think of you. You are thinking “Am I good enough?” You are worried about disappointing others and so on. Just do it. Just act as best as you can.

Theories about Happiness: Buddhism Compared to Modern Psychology

Question: I have a more theoretical question about aspects of our existence, about unhappiness and its causes. The Buddhist explanation of what causes unhappiness seems to be similar to the explanations given by various schools of modern Western psychology; for example, Seligman’s positive psychology, Erich Fromm’s psychoanalysis, or the existential psychology of Viktor Frankl. What is the difference between the Buddhist point of view and modern psychology, regarding happiness and its causes?

Alex: We are differentiating here between Buddhist science and philosophy as opposed to Buddhist religion. However, they do not actually exist separately, and so if we want to look at the Buddhist psychology in a more complete way, then we need to bring in the concept of past and future lives. Buddhism states that happiness and unhappiness are the result of previous behavior.

First there is contacting awareness, which is the awareness of something as being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral when we come in contact with it. Why do we experience something as pleasant or unpleasant? Sometimes contact with the exact same object (for example, a friend) can be experienced as pleasant or as unpleasant. On one level, how we experience this contact is affected by what happened at our previous encounter: we had a good time or we had an argument. It is also affected by our state of mind or situation when we meet our friend: we are lonely and want company, or we are busy or overtired. But on a deeper level, the quality of our contacting awareness of meeting our friend is the result of the positive or negative potentials we have built up in previous lives from our behavior. The positive potentials from our previous constructive behavior bring about experiencing contact with our friend as pleasant and we feel happy. On the other hand, if we experience this contact as unpleasant and we feel unhappy, this is the result of negative potentials from our previous destructive behavior. Destructive behavior means acting, speaking or thinking under the influence of disturbing emotions, such as anger, attachment, greed, or ignorance.

Suppose when we come in contact with our friend we experience this as unpleasant and we feel unhappy. The circumstance could be that we had an argument last time we met or, even if we had a good time, I am in a bad mood. But that is only the circumstance for the compulsive aspect to come in. Being unhappy, we feel like doing something, for example yelling at you, “Go away!” I am unhappy and, just like being thirsty, it is actually that bad feeling that I want to push away from me: “I don’t like that unhappiness. Get it away from me!” So now, based on a previous tendency to yell, the urge to yelling at you compulsively arises, and I think that if you leave, my unhappiness will go away. That leads to the compulsion of being drawn into yelling. I think to yell and then I actually yell at you. And then, because yelling is an unpleasant sensation and creates even more unhappiness, our compulsively yelling builds up further causes not only to repeat this habit of yelling, but also in the future to experience coming in contact with more things as unpleasant and to be unhappy again. So Buddhism gives us this very thorough analysis.

And all of this derives from confusion about myself and how I exist. What I 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, and so on – all of that is not corresponding to anything real. This is a quite unique assertion that is not generally found in Western psychology, the assertion of voidness. We are reacting to something that in fact is not real and voidness is referring to an absence; something is totally absent and never was there. What is totally absent is an object in reality that corresponds to my projection of what is impossible, a corresponding figure in reality of what I am projecting, which is impossible. For example, a “me” who is the center of the universe and should always have his or her way. I might think like that, I might feel like that, but there is 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. No one exists like that. And when we focus on the total absence of that object, when we realize that there is no such thing, when we are convinced – then all the compulsion and disturbing emotions (which are based on this false belief) stop.

Can Human Beings Become Perfectly Rational?

Question: My question is more philosophical. In the beginning of your lecture you said that one of the causes of our suffering is irrationality. Do you think a human being can 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 does not mean having no emotions. Being rational means that our way of thinking is valid, our way of understanding is valid. So for instance, it is irrational to think that I am the only one in the world who has this problem. That is irrational. That does not make any sense. And so when we are rational about it, when we realize that many people have the same problem, then that allows us to feel compassion, love, and sympathy for them.

A lot of our thinking, of course, is irrational. That is because we do not 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 our feelings. For example, maybe I feel upset. I would review what happened during the day, and I might realize that I was upset about this or about that. Then I ask myself why, and I realize that I was upset because of this or that reason, which is irrational. They are 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 am not so upset. And I train myself in meditation to not be so irrational, so that in daily life I am also not going to be so irrational.

In the Tibetan Buddhist training, the education system is based on logic and debate. The point of the debate is to discover inconsistencies in your thought process, and in other people’s thinking. 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 are never going to question your understanding as critically as other people will. And the result of the debate training is that with anything that you think about, you exercise critical analysis. After a while it does not have to be verbal analysis, it is just that your mind thinks that way. You have certainty in your understanding and there is no inconsistency, which prepares you to be much more efficient in meditation. If you are trying to meditate on impermanence, for example, and you do not really understand impermanence or your understanding is confused, you are not going to get anything except more confusion.

One thing that 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 anyone says – the debate monster immediately jumps on them and attacks them, and starts debating with them. That behavior causes one to lose friends very quickly. I will confess that when I went to India in the beginning, coming from a university where I did very well, 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.

Debate Monsters and How to Conquer Them

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

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

For example, you have a three-year-old child, and it is bedtime. The child does not want to go to bed, and the child starts screaming at you: “I hate you! I hate you!” Now, that is irrational. Do you believe that the child really hates you? No, the child is just tired and cranky. So you are tolerant. You do not have to correct the child, telling her that “Well, you do not really hate me,” and get into a whole discussion. This is ridiculous. You are very patient, and you deal with the child in whatever way is appropriate at the time.

In another example, maybe you are with your partner or your friend, and he is very upset. He says, “I hate you and I never want to see you again.” It is interesting, because then what do we project onto that? We might project the thought that “You never loved me. You are never going to love me again. This is what you thought all the time.” You get very angry. You get upset. But if you think instead: “Okay, he is upset. He said this thing, but I realize that he is very angry right now, and it was an irrational statement.” At the time, to start debating with him – “What do you mean you never want to see me again?” – this is ridiculous. I know in my mind that this is irrational, he is upset, and so I am patient, and decide to wait to talk about it tomorrow.

Buddhism Works

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

Alex: I try to, but I can’t say that I am always successful. I can certainly report that after studying and practicing Buddhism for almost fifty years there is certainly improvement. It works.

The Right Type of Job for the Spiritual Path

Question: I have a question about work and jobs. What kind of job can help me to stay connected to this spiritual path? I have an example. I could go work in a large legal company, but my friends say that no, this legal company is too big and it will chew you up and destroy your spirit. You will get distracted and you will forget about following a spiritual path. It seems that most Buddhists [work] either part time or they are freelancers and work only when they want to. So can you somehow combine a job and work with a spiritual path?

Alex: Well, no one said it was easy! First of all, we do not necessarily have control over what type of work we do. In many countries now, there is a great deal of unemployment and you are very fortunate if you get any job. Ideally, of course, we try to find some type of work that we love doing, that does not make us upset, and that in some way is benefitting others. And while working, we try to develop the various good qualities that we are working with in Buddhism, such as patience, understanding, and compassion for others. In an ideal world, we try to 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 is more challenging for us to resist becoming stressed. Try to make enough time to have at least some sort of daily Buddhist practice or spiritual practice, whatever your practice might be.

If you are doing some type of spiritual practice – and let’s speak here about a Buddhist practice – it is important that it be meaningful and not just a repetition of a ritual that has become meaningless to you, because then it does not have very much of an effect. What is most helpful is setting an intention for the day, such as: “I will try not to become upset today. I will try to be patient. I will try to be understanding,” and so on. It is also helpful, at the end of the day, to review how we dealt with the day. If we became upset or stressed, see what steps can be taken 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. Even if we do all of this for just five minutes a day, it is something worthwhile. Try to find some balance in your life. And try to get to know yourself well enough to know what your imbalances are, and what you need to do to balance yourself.

I’ll give you an example. A good friend of mine was very stressed with work, and he is a Buddhist practitioner. What he found very helpful was to play the piano. He had played the piano as a young man but he had stopped. He found that playing for fifteen minutes in the morning, or fifteen minutes in the evening, added balance. There was something creative in his day – an activity using the right side of the brain, rather than left side of the brain. So what you add for bringing balance does not 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 to work over those situations that I might encounter in work, it is much more helpful for my spiritual practice than just staying in the comfort zone and trying to do some more generic practice.

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

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

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.

Why Does Suffering Exist at All?

Question: A person is born with the wish to be happy, and the person does not have the wish to suffer, but she still encounters suffering, and maybe she does not have the antidote. A lot of people suffer, and a lot of people cannot do anything about it, so they just multiply the suffering. There is no logic in this. Why is it all happening? Why do we have 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 is very confusing. For example, it seems as though there is a voice going on inside our heads talking all the time. And so it feels as though there is some little me sitting in my head, talking. That is the author inside that is 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 is a solid little “me” sitting in our head, but this is ridiculous if you think about it. There is no little me sitting behind a control panel, with information coming in on the screen and through the loudspeakers, and then the little me presses the buttons and gets the body to do things, or causes the mouth to say things. That is fantasy, isn’t it? Neuroscience would agree with that. But it seems like that; we believe that there is that actual “me” that is solid, sitting in there, and that is the one that we are worried about. So it is a limitation of this sort of hardware that we have, this body.

Without the Antidote, Suffering Continues Indefinitely

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

Alex: Yes. It will continue unless you do something about it. It does not have to be like that. One needs to wake up, as it were, and to realize that this does not correspond to anything real, and I am believing in a fantasy and acting on the basis of this fantasy – as if there is a little “me” there that has to defend itself, it has to attack, and so on. Sometimes, of course, you have to defend yourself and assert yourself. That is not at issue here. If someone throws something at you, of course you have to put your hand up, and you do that automatically.

But you can realize that there is nothing to feel insecure about; there is nothing that you have to defend. You do not have to prove yourself; you do not have to prove that you are worthy of love, and so on. This is ridiculous worry. It is based on belief that there is a little “me” inside that has to prove itself. And when you are free of that, then you just act; you just act compassionately, patiently, lovingly – without worrying. You are able to think: “If my actions help, fine. If they do not help – well, what can I do? I am not God.” But unless we realize that all this garbage that we are projecting is just garbage, then yes, this suffering is going to go on forever. Therefore, we feel compassion toward those who do not understand. When they are acting destructively, rather than getting angry with them and wanting to punish them, the attitude is of compassion: They are acting this way because they do not know any better, like naughty children.

Will There Be Western Buddhism in the Future?

Question: Buddhism has developed by being adapted in different cultures, like the culture of Tibet, China, Thailand, etc. Do you think that 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. But there is no such thing as Buddhism outside of a cultural context. Buddha, after all, was Indian and taught within an Indian context. So regardless of which country or culture that Buddhism has spread to, there are certain basic Indian aspects of it that are fundamental to the Buddhist way of thinking. What I am 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 an enlightened being, and the belief in many other life forms besides human and animal. All of these things are the general cultural envelope of Buddhism, no matter where it has gone. Then there are specific things that vary from culture to culture.

I differentiate between what I call “Dharma-Lite” (Dharma means the Buddhist teachings) and the “Real Thing” Dharma. Dharma-Lite is a low-calorie, low-caffeine version, in which there is no concept of rebirth and so on. Dharma-Lite is just for this lifetime, which is fine, but it reduces Buddhism to merely a form of psychology. It is beneficial, no doubt, and it has its distinctive features. But it is not the real thing; it is not the authentic Dharma. So if Western Buddhism were to become only a Dharma-Lite version of Buddhism, I think that would be a great loss. That is part of what I try to do with my website – I try to at least show the Real Thing.

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 are very good at comparing systems – that is the way that we learn. We want to know, for example, 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 I think this will be an integral feature of Western Buddhism – bringing into it, and melding together with it, our more scientific way of understanding Buddhism – not just accepting on faith that something is written in scripture, and so that is the way it is.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always trying to bring together science and Buddhism, particularly brain science. In Buddhism there is no discussion of the brain. Western brain science is not in the slightest bit contradictory to the Buddhist teachings, and can supplement the teachings very well. Also there are the discussions of particle physics, quantum physics, cosmology, and all these sort of things. The Dalai Lama says, and Buddha said, that we should only accept things that can be verified as truth, and if it is not true, forget it. This is not with the chauvinistic attitude that since everything is in the Buddhist scriptures, and Buddha said it long ago, there is nothing new that we can learn. Instead, if there is anything that is imprecise in the Buddha’s teachings, we should correct it, according to what is found by science.

As for superficial Western changes to Buddhism, why not? The Tibetans certainly do not have the same type of music or the same type of flower offerings as the Indians had, so we do not need to have the same thing as the Tibetans. These things are trivial and simply ornamental. However, whatever Western elements we bring in, such as music, etc., it is very important that we be very respectful and dignified, not just banal and ordinary.

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