Why People Are Attracted to Buddhism in the Present World
I want to thank you very much for your very kind and generous introduction. I’m always very delighted to come once more to Kalmykia. It always makes me remember very strongly my first inspiration for going into Tibetan studies, which was the Kalmyk Geshe Wangyal in New Jersey, in America. In Buddhism we have a great emphasis on repaying the kindness of our teachers, our parents, those who have helped us on the way. So coming here is a small way of repaying the kindness of Geshe Wangyal.
Today’s topic is concerning a very interesting and important question, which is: Why are more people turning to Buddhism in our modern times? And of course there’s a great variety of reasons, because there’s a great variety of people and everybody’s an individual. But I think we can understand this phenomenon in terms of the most basic principles of Buddha’s teachings, which I usually refer to as the four noble truths. These are facts about life that the noble ones, so-called noble ones—referring to those who have seen reality—all have understood as being true. In other words, ordinary people might not be aware of these facts of life. And even if they are slightly aware of them, they don’t really understand them, or they don’t really believe that they’re true, or they understand them in an incorrect way.
The first fact is that although life has its ups and downs and so on, if we look on a deeper level then we see that life is filled with problems: Everybody has problems. Nobody is free of them. Even just on the level of our moods going up and down. Sometimes we are happy, but often we are unhappy. That’s just part of life, isn’t it? We get frustrated. We try very hard to get what we want, and often that doesn’t help—we don’t succeed. Things happen to us that nobody wants to happen: We get sick. We grow old. We die. We have economic difficulties, family difficulties, difficulties in our relations with others. Everybody has that. And the deepest fact about that is that these problems just go on and on and on if we don’t do something about it. And whatever happiness we gain, very quickly it changes into being unhappy, dissatisfied about something or other.
But Buddha saw, and highly realized beings understand, that these problems come from causes, and things don’t happen just because of one cause, but because of many, many causes and conditions that affect what happens. The world is a complex place. And although we could blame our problems on society, or world economics, or what happened to us as a child within our family, very often these are things which are very difficult to change, especially if it’s talking about what’s happened already in the past. You can’t change that.
So what is it that we can change? What we can change is our attitude about our life, about what’s happening to us. And so the deepest cause of our problems is really our confusion, our unawareness about the reality of life and what can be done about it. You see, the thing is that if we get emotionally upset about what’s going on and just think in terms of a very small scope of “me, me, me and my problems,” without understanding that my problems are interconnected with everybody’s problems—nobody lives isolated—when we are confused about all of that, and we act selfishly, and get very angry when we don’t get our way and so on, we just make our life more miserable: we create more problems. But if we can overcome this emotional difficulty about our lives, based, as I said, on confusion and unawareness, then we can see quite objectively—or more objectively, I should say—what can be changed, what can we do in terms of this big interconnection of causes and conditions to change what’s happening, what we experience, what everybody experiences.
So this second truth is the true causes of our problems. And the true cause is—meaning the deepest cause, what we can affect—is our confusion, our unawareness, our ignorance about reality.
The third truth, the third fact, is that it’s possible to get rid of this confusion, this lack of understanding, and we can get rid of it so that it never comes again. So that gives us great hope. It’s not that we just have to accept all the difficulties of life and just shut up and live with it, but it is possible to get rid of all this confusion in our minds and in our hearts.
The fourth truth, the fourth fact, is what will bring this true stopping of the problems and their causes to occur in our minds. And what will bring that about is correct understanding. If we understand the interconnectedness of everything, for example, and we think on a much, much larger universal scale, rather than just me and the immediate things that are happening to me, then we have a much more open and relaxed state of mind. We take into consideration all the variables that affect what’s happening, and we see what is possible and what isn’t possible to change. And based on understanding this interconnectedness of everyone and that we are all in the same situation, so we’re all equal—we all want to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy; everybody is the same in that respect—then based on this compassion, this love for everybody, we look at finding realistic solutions to our universal problems, solutions that take into consideration everybody.
It’s like if you want to make a mathematical simulation of a situation which affects everybody, for example, the weather. Nobody is immune from being affected in the weather, because we all live in it, don’t we? So if you only factor in the variables of a very small area—just what’s happening around my house or my city—that of course will not be a very accurate computer program, will it, because there are so many variables that affect the weather. In fact, it’s universal. But if you could factor in all the variables of the entire planet that affect the weather, and if you could even be aware of all the variables that affect it, then we would get a much better simulation, wouldn’t we? An accurate one.
So this is the path of how we deal with the problem as is recommended in Buddhism. And it doesn’t say, “program this into a computer,” although there’s no objection to trying to do that, but it says our minds, each and every one of ours, is capable of becoming like that supercomputer. We just have to get rid of our mental and emotional blocks and open up and be receptive to gaining more and more understanding and concern for everyone. These are the most fundamental teachings of Buddha.
So I think that most people nowadays are turning to Buddhism because they recognize that their lives have more and more problems. There are some problems that have been going on for as long as there have been people on this planet, and probably even before that, with animals before there were humans: the problems of relating to each other, problems that come up from anger, from fights, from disputes. These are problems that everybody has been facing almost forever, so nothing special about what you or I experience now. And then of course there are more recent problems that just make things even more difficult, like economic problems and problems of wars and so on. So people are feeling these problems more and more. And they are not finding solutions for them, how to deal with them on a personal level, particularly in terms of their emotions, their minds. They’re not finding solutions for these in what is available to them already.
But one of the wonderful developments of the modern time is communication, particularly in what we now call the Information Age, and even more with the Age of Social Media. So that means that more and more information is available to us about many alternative systems. And many great Buddhist leaders, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have been travelling around the world. And many people have witnessed, seen for themselves with their own eyes, those who have managed to develop themselves to an extraordinary level so that they are able to have a peaceful, calm, loving mind in the face of some of the most difficult situations, like losing your country. So this has added the quality of inspiration from a living person, which is very important in addition to just information that we can get on the internet or in books.
So people turn to Buddhism primarily because they are looking for some solution to problems that they face and they are hopeful that Buddhism will be able to offer some way to deal with life. And it, this Buddhism, might be something which is quite foreign, not traditional in their societies, or, like here in Kalmykia, it might be a traditional system of your people.
Now, within this framework of looking to Buddhism to offer solutions, different aspects of Buddhism will appeal to different people. If we look at what His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes, what he emphasizes, and many people find this very appealing, is the rational, analytical, and practical sides of Buddhism. He points out that the approach in Buddhism is very much like the approach in science, which means that we don’t just accept various principles simply on the basis of blind belief and devotion, but rather we follow the scientific method of using logic and reason, deep analysis, and a pragmatic approach of trying it ourselves—experimenting and seeing if the methods taught in Buddhism actually produce the results that they say they will produce, in terms of peace of mind, being able to deal with problems in a better way. And being very practical in our approach, not idealistic, but practical in terms of what is realistic, what will actually help us in our daily lives.
And in addition to this, if there are aspects in the traditional Buddhist teachings which are proven to be incorrect or inconsistent with the findings of science—for instance, about the structure of the universe—then His Holiness is quite happy to drop all of that from the Buddhist teachings and substitute instead the view from science, because there’s nothing contradictory. Because Buddhism emphasizes reality not fantasy, and Buddha came not to teach us geography, but to teach us a way to deal with our problems in life. And the traditional teachings about the size of this planet, the distance from our Earth to the Sun and the Moon—these sort of things were just explained in the traditional ways in which people understood this two and a half thousand years ago. So the traditional teachings about those things are not really important; that’s not the main substance of the Buddha’s teachings. And His Holiness challenges the scientists to disprove, for example, rebirth, and not just dismiss it from consideration simply on the basis of saying, “I don’t think so.” “I don’t think so” is not a valid reason for saying that something doesn’t exist.
So this is something that certainly appeals to people with a more rational mind. And there has been a great deal of what we could call cross-fertilization between the Buddhist side, led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the side of the scientists. Particularly in the field of medicine, because one of the main points that is made by the Buddhist teachings in this regard is that our health is very much affected by our state of mind. If we are very pessimistic—very negative, and always worrying about me, me, me, and so on—this weakens the immune system and our sicknesses get worse and we don’t recover so quickly. Whereas if we are optimistic, if we are thinking of everybody else who also has this type of sickness and our family and so on, then we are not complaining all the time. Our minds and hearts are much more at peace, and this strengthens the immune system. The scientists have carried out various investigations about these points and they have been shown to be true, so these methods are encouraged in many hospitals now.
Also there are many methods from Buddhism that help very much with pain control. Pain is bad enough just by itself, but if you add to that fear and being very, very tight inside emotionally about it, it just makes it worse. There are various methods that Buddhism teaches with breathing meditation that help us to deal in a much better way with pain, and these have also been tested and then promoted in various hospitals. These methods do not require a whole Buddhist envelope within which to carry it. You don’t need the Buddhist teachings to be explained in any sort of detail to people in order for them to follow these methods. These are universally available methods that anybody can adopt within any belief system. But because they derive from the Buddhist teachings, then people become a little bit interested in, well, what are these Buddhist teachings about in more detail. We saw the same type of phenomenon with people who practice martial arts. The martial arts developed in Buddhist societies, and so many people who have practiced them have taken interest in what were the Buddhist backgrounds of these teachings.
But of course there are many people who are not terribly rationally oriented, who are not very scientifically oriented in their approach to life, so different aspects of Buddhism have appealed to them. One aspect I’ve already hinted at when I referred to inspiration from great spiritual masters: With more and more great spiritual masters travelling around the world, and their teachings being available in books and audio and video recordings on the internet, people who are more devotionally oriented have been greatly inspired. When many people have been disappointed in the various leaders that they have heard about or encountered, whether in the economic sphere, political sphere, or whatever—and so they’re a bit disappointed—they look to these Buddhist masters with great hope, that here they will find somebody that is more pure.
And of course we need to be realistic: Not every spiritual teacher that comes around from a Buddhist background is completely pure. After all they’re humans, like we are too. So they have their strong points, their weak points. But quite a large number of them are really quite extraordinary. And so people have been greatly inspired—some people, I should say—have been greatly inspired by these masters, the foremost one, as I said, being His Holiness the Dalai Lama. So what arises in their minds and in their hearts is: “I wish I could become like that.” They serve as a model for what is actually possible for us to achieve, each of us, individually. Because somebody like His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, “There’s nothing special about me.” In fact, Buddha as well said, “Nothing special about me. I started out the same as you. I had and have the same working materials as you do—mind, heart, basic human values of taking care of others, and so on. And I worked very hard to develop them, and if you work hard as well you will be able to develop them as well.” So people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama try not to encourage people putting him way, way up as something super-holy and impossible for us to relate to or become like him. And so this is very appealing to those who are more devotionally oriented, not so scientific in their approach to life.
Then in places that have traditionally been Buddhist, like here in Kalmykia, in which, because of various circumstances, the availability of the Buddhist practice has declined, then another appeal of Buddhism in the modern day is to try to revive tradition. This is a very important and valid approach because, as we face the challenges of modernization, it’s very important to have a sense of self-confidence and self-worth. If we are told that everything that our ancestors believed in was total nonsense and if we want to truly enter the modern world we have to forget about all of that, then we have a very low opinion of ourselves and our ancestors. It makes us feel that somehow we are no good, we are stupid. And with that as a belief, emotional belief, we lack any feeling of self-worth or self-confidence; we don’t have a basis to feel proud about upon which we can grow. And so turning to our traditional customs and beliefs and reviving them is a very important part, I believe, in giving us the emotional basis for further growth and modernization.
Now of course, within any tradition there will be strong points and there will be weaknesses that perhaps have been abused, and it’s important to emphasize those strong points. In one school of modern psychology, there’s a great emphasis on the principle of loyalty. Everybody has a drive to be loyal to their family, their clan, their religion, whatever it might be. And loyalty can go in two directions, either being loyal to positive qualities or loyal to negative qualities. For example, if a tradition had a negative quality of intolerance toward other traditions, and if this is what has been emphasized about that tradition, then people who reject that tradition still stay loyal to that attitude of intolerance. And so they reject it and then they’re very intolerant of anybody who could possibly have believed that way. This is negative loyalty, or misplaced loyalty. On the other hand, if one doesn’t deny the weaknesses, the weak points of a tradition, but emphasizes, again, instead the positive aspects, then people can be loyal to those positive aspects without having a blind eye toward the weak points which might cause them to repeat them. So this is another appeal of Buddhism, particularly in areas where it has been the traditional system. It has become an area in which to help to revive and develop a sense of self-worth and so on about our culture, about our ancestors, about ourselves.
There’s another group of people who find Buddhism appealing based on their own fantasies. They have problems in life and they’re looking for some magical, exotic solution to them, and Buddhism—particularly in the Tibetan/Mongolian/Kalmyk version of it—is filled with all sorts of exotic things: all these various deities with all their faces and arms and legs, all these mantras, and so on. They seem a little bit like magic words—that all we have to do is recite them a million times and all our problems will be gone. And there must be something magical about all these figures with all the arms and legs. And so they look to Buddhism as a method for gaining happiness and so on through these, as I said, magical type of methods.
Although they may gain some benefit from practicing these methods (there’s no denying that there is some benefit, even if we approach Buddhism in this rather idealistic, unrealistic manner), His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes that this is not really realistic. It might have some benefit, but in the long term you’ll get disappointed because, unfortunately, there are no magic solutions. If we really want to gain peace of mind and be able to overcome our problems in life, we have to face those aspects of ourselves which are not too nice or comfortable to face. We have to face and deal with our anger, our selfishness, our greed, our attachments, and so on. And just looking for some magic solution and ignoring these personal issues is really not going to help very much. But of course there are many people who still find the appeal of Buddhism in these more exotic features.
So in short, we see that there are many different aspects of Buddhism that people find attractive and appealing, but all of them derive from the basic wish to find in Buddhism methods that will help us to overcome problems in life and suffering. And regardless of what draws us to find some way of dealing with life through Buddhism, what is so wonderful about the Buddha’s teachings that everybody likes is that it actually offers us methods to follow that are intended to help us to overcome problems. It’s a living tradition with two and a half thousand years of experience, and there are still people who practice it and gain results. And so it’s just a matter of actually following these methods; it’s all laid out. And not just one method, but many, many different types of methods that Buddha taught upon the realization that everybody’s an individual and different people find different methods more useful. This is something that people find very wonderful, because within the whole variety of Buddhist methods, like having a very large menu at a restaurant, we can usually find something that suits us; and if we try one thing and it doesn’t suit us, there are many other things that are available. And the fact that we live in the Information Age means that a larger and larger number of these methods are available to us, no matter where we live.
I think that’s enough of my lecture about this topic, and we have time for questions or discussion.
Question: In our schoolbooks it is said that among the three world religions, Buddhism actually is less popular than others. And my question is concerning America. In your country are there many Buddhists? And also concerning yourself: as we know, you are a scholar, Buddhist scholar, but can you say that you are a Buddhist?
Alex: Let me answer the second part of your question first. Yes, I am definitely a Buddhist and a Buddhist practitioner. I have been interested in Buddhism for over fifty years, starting from when I was a young teenager. And although I started my study of Buddhism in an academic way—because that was the only thing that was available in the 1950s and ’60s—I met Geshe Wangyal in 1967, your great Kalmyk Geshe, and he introduced me to the fact that here Buddhism was a living tradition; there were people that actually practice it. I went to India to do my doctorate dissertation in 1969 with the Tibetans and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama very soon after I arrived, and that convinced me totally that Buddhism was very much a living tradition and here was a large number of monks and great masters who had all the teachings alive.
So I started my serious practice of Buddhism in 1970 and have been continuing ever since, trying to follow the combined approach of both scholar and practitioner, which was the main thing that Geshe Wangyal emphasized among all his students in America: scholar side and practice side together.
As for the situation of Buddhism in America, it’s becoming certainly more and more widespread, more and more mainstream. There are many reasons for that. One is that there’s a large population of traditional Buddhists in America from various Asian societies. But also it is very widespread among nontraditional Buddhists, perhaps because of the great, widespread availability of information in America. And we can’t ignore the effect of some Hollywood stars being involved with Buddhism, so that attracts some people. But in general, people in the United States tend to be quite—at least among some people, not everybody—but among some people in the United States there’s a very open attitude toward new things. But the exact number of Buddhists? That’s hard to say, because His Holiness the Dalai Lama is like a superstar, so when he travels, no matter which country it might be, far more people come than to anybody else.
Question: Is there an official His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s website on the internet?
Alex: Yes there is. It is called dalailama.com, I think. I’m not absolutely positive. It could be .org or .net, but the main part of the address is “dalailama.” And on that there are a growing number of teachings of His Holiness, particularly video teachings. He has a whole department of information technology and they live-stream a great many of his teachings. This has been going on for the last few years. And they’re available online for free afterwards, for anybody who would like to download and watch and listen to them.
Question: My question is: Why did you choose Buddhism and not other traditions?
Alex: I was always attracted to Buddhism, since I was quite young. But at university, I studied not just Buddhism but various other Asian traditions. I looked very seriously at Hinduism and Daoism—Chinese philosophy—as well as various forms of Buddhism, since I was attracted to Asia and Asian languages. But when I travelled in Asia I tried to meet spiritual teachers of these various traditions that I had studied, whether in America, like with Geshe Wangyal, or in Asia itself, but mostly in Asia. And the main criterion that I used was seeing these spiritual leaders or teachers of these different traditions—“Are they the model of what I would like to become?” And these Buddhists leaders specifically, and the Tibetan/Mongolian/Kalmyk version or tradition of Buddhism—these are the ones that I found most inspiring: “I would like to become like them.” That was, I think, what convinced me the strongest to actually make the decision to put all my efforts into this Buddhist tradition. And also the explanations that they gave within Buddhism for how the mind worked and the clear outlining of the spiritual path of how to work on ourselves also made it very appealing and accessible.
Question: Thank you very much for the lecture. My name is Valerii, and since I am a practitioner, Buddhist practitioner, my first question is: You told us that it is possible to solve different problems of our daily life using Buddhist methods. Could you please maybe give us some example of how personally for you it worked in your life? And my second question is: Is it true that you have a Russian background?
Alex: Let me try to think of an example. I had lived in India for 29 years, and I had always thought that I would settle and spend the rest of my life in India. During all that time, I lived in a very, very primitive hut with no toilet, no bathroom, no water. I had to go to the toilet outside, just in the bushes or in a very primitive outdoor toilet. Collect water in a bucket. There was no glass on my windows. And electricity was very poor. So I lived in very primitive conditions, but it was okay. But I thought to buy a piece of land and build a house, but as a foreigner I was not permitted to buy land. I had to entrust an Indian friend to buy the land for me. So I did that. I gave him money. He bought land in his name. And I gave him money to build a house, to supervise the workers, since I’m not capable of doing that. While I was in Europe working on a book as part of the end of a lecture tour, this Indian friend that I’d given all this money to ran away with my money, and I never got that money back; he never built the house.
Now that’s a type of situation in which one could get very, very angry. I trusted this person. I thought that he was a good friend. Whereas it appeared that he was only using me to his own advantage, to get land and money. So I must confess that in the beginning I was upset and angry, but I realized that it was absolutely useless, that there was no way that I was ever going to recover that money. I had no legal ground for being able to recover it. After all, foreigners are not allowed to buy land in India. So in the Buddhist teachings it says that there are various consequences of actions. These are in the teachings of karma. And so if someone takes money or steals money, or things like that—“takes what is not given” is the expression—then the consequences of that in future lives, this life, but particularly future lives, is that they are going to be very poor, going to lose what they have. And the more suffering that they cause by their action, the worse suffering they will experience. So, thinking of him and how he came from a poor background, and how most things that he tried to do he failed in in life, I realized that the angrier I was—the more suffering I experienced—the worse it would be for him, and it certainly wouldn’t help me. And because, basically, I’d always considered him my friend—I liked him—I certainly didn’t want to see him suffer even more as a consequence of what he had done. This helped me very much to no longer feel angry, no longer feel upset about what he had done. It was history. It had been done already. Nothing could change it.
This, I think, is a big example that I can think of from my own life in which the Buddhist teachings have helped me very, very much to overcome a really difficult situation of having lost quite a lot of money.
As for coming from a Russian background: My father’s parents both came from Latvia. My grandfather—the name Berzin, which is a common Latvian name—came from Riga. My grandmother came from the family Bikov (Bickoff), and she came from the second city in Latvia, Daugavpils. But although whenever I enter Russia everybody thinks that I can speak and understand Russian, I don’t. I know a few words, but unfortunately I don’t know the language. I wish I did, but life is short.
Question: The question is of two parts. The first part is: There are some Asian people who are studying in Harvard, and maybe you met some of them. And my niece has just finished Harvard. And also the second part, which is similar: There is a Kalmyk diaspora that is living in the U.S.A., and he thought maybe you know some of them.
Alex: First of all, I should point out that I received my doctorate from Harvard University, but I don’t actually teach there. In fact, I don’t live in the United States. I live in Berlin, Germany, where I moved from India, in order, basically, to produce my website, berzinarchives.com. So, certainly in my days at Harvard (we’re talking about the 1960s, beginning of the… well, basically the 1960s) there were certainly Asian professors and students in the faculty of Far Eastern Languages, that I was studying in, and Sanskrit and Indian Studies—two faculties—but actually neither any Tibetans, nor Mongolians, or Kalmyks at that time. The professor of Tibetan was Japanese and the professor of Mongolian was American from a European background. The Japanese taught Tibetan and an American from a European background taught Mongolian.
As for the community in Philadelphia and also across the river in New Jersey: as I said, I don’t live in America, so I don’t have actual personal contact with them. But a very, very close friend of mine lives in Philadelphia and she has an extremely large connection with this community and the Tibetan community in the Philadelphia area, so I receive news about that community secondhand through her.
Question: My question is: What does it mean to be Buddhist?
Alex: Very good question. I think that for different people it means different things. But I follow the advice and approach that His Holiness the Dalai Lama follows. And as he emphasizes, what it means to be a Buddhist is someone who is working on improving themselves in terms of their emotional life, in terms of how they deal with life’s problems, by looking internally and working on themselves on whatever shortcomings they might have in their personalities—like for instance having a bad temper or being lazy—and using the various methods that Buddha taught in order to overcome these problems.
So to me this really makes sense in terms of why I consider myself a Buddhist. I’m working on myself. I’ve been working on myself for many decades, trying to apply the Buddha’s teachings in a personal way, for my development, to be able to not only deal with life better but to be of best help to everybody.
But as I say, other people might consider different criteria for considering themselves Buddhist. For example, “This is the traditional belief of my family.” Fine, but as His Holiness says, we need to have knowledge, understanding—not just follow something simply because our family has followed that.
Question: If a person is rich, does it prove that in his previous life he or she was virtuous?
Alex: According to the Buddhist teachings on karma, the experience of wealth in this lifetime is the result of being generous in the past, either in this life or… Buddhism speaks a great deal about previous lifetimes. In other words, what we give out to others, in a sense, comes back to us. If we are generous not with the idea that: “I’m going to do this as an investment so that I get something back in return,” but rather we give to others with the motivation of wanting to be of help to them.
But there are many different ways of being generous. We don’t need to necessarily give material things or wealth especially; many of us don’t have it to give. What is most important, even in just giving a bowl of water to the dog, is—which is an act of generosity—is our motivation to want to actually relieve the thirst of this animal.
Question: Is it possible for an ordinary being to achieve a nirvana state?
Alex: Absolutely! That is one of the main teachings in Buddhism—that we are all capable of attaining liberation, or nirvana, and the enlightened state of a Buddha. This is because we all have the working materials that will allow us to attain these goals. These are known as Buddha-nature factors. These refer to the fact that we all have a body and we’re able to communicate. We all have a mind; we’re able to understand. We all have feelings, so we are quite capable of feeling warmth toward someone. We have various types of other good qualities. Basic compassion, even if it’s directed just at ourselves, to try to avoid suffering and eliminate suffering, and which is usually directed toward our children. We have some positive energy, which is demonstrated by the fact that we are human beings and not animals. We have basic intelligence; we’re able to distinguish between what’s helpful, what’s harmful. All of these will enable us to attain liberation and enlightenment. These are the basic working materials. A great deal of the Buddhist practice is directed toward removing the confusion and obstacles that prevent these basic faculties from functioning fully. That’s one side, called purification, and the other side is to develop these qualities further.
When we recognize and acknowledge that we all have these basic working materials, this gives us a sense of self-worth and a sense of self-esteem. This is very, very helpful, not only in terms of working to achieve liberation and enlightenment, but just in general in life. We respect ourselves because we have all these basic working materials, and that gives us a sense of values. Because when we realize that: “I have all these working materials,” we know that: “I could do better.” So that helps us to overcome laziness and a sense of despair that: “I can’t accomplish anything in my life.” So even if we can’t attain nirvana or enlightenment in this lifetime, okay. But we certainly can improve our situation. We are all capable of that; it’s just a matter of doing it with a sense of self-confidence that we are capable.
Question: Dear Dr. Berzin, my first question is a little bit of an anxious question: Because now many people say about the end of the world and about cataclysms and catastrophes, what do you think about that? And the second question is about how to protect our young generation from different sects—destructive sects, cults.
Alex: As for the end of the world, I think that there have been people who have been predicting that to occur at many, many different times over history and the world hasn’t ended yet, and so I don’t think that it’s going to happen very soon. The natural course of history is that things go up and down: But although things might get more difficult in the future, or they might get better in the future; nevertheless life is going to go on. According to Buddhism, even at the end of the universe it’s not the end, because there’ll be another universe after that—another Big Bang, for example. Like the scientific law of conservation of matter and energy: matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Buddhism has a strong belief in that.
As for how to protect our children from cults or sects, this depends very much on education and helping our children to overcome a feeling of desperation. When somebody, particularly a young person, but not exclusively young people, feels desperate—that there’s no way out, “The situation is so terrible, there’s nothing I can do”—then they turn to a charismatic cult figure. Or should I say they are easy prey to being seduced, in a sense—taken by this cult leader, who promises them power and strength by having numbers, many people in the cult. And they just have to have absolute obedience to the leader and somehow all their problems will be solved. That they are the only true path, and all the problems are because of other people, another group, and they’re the enemy—they have to be overcome. This is classic fascism, and it’s the same mechanism that we find in cults. And people are attracted to that, basically when they feel they can’t possibly do anything by themselves and times are just too difficult.
So through education we can educate our children about the dangers of such cults and, as I was explaining about these Buddha-nature factors, help to instill in our children a sense of self-confidence and self-worth—that you can do something and accomplish something yourself. And don’t trust somebody that says, “Just follow me and all your problems will be solved. I’m the only one and everybody else is wrong.” Don’t trust somebody like that; be suspicious of their motivation.
Question: When our close relative or friend dies, is it correct from our side to be sad and cry and be upset?
Alex: Well, yes. From any sort of point of view, when somebody dies it’s sad. The point is: How long do we indulge in this sadness? How long do we grieve? Now, different people will grieve for different lengths of time, and certainly if we’ve lost a very close one, then even years later a certain wave of sadness will come up, in terms of missing them. But if we analyze, then often what makes the experience of a loss of a loved one worse is thinking about “my loss”—“Me, me, me”—rather than the other person.
If we are believers in rebirth, as we have in Buddhism, then of course we can think in terms of this person’s future lives, have prayers for them, and so on. But even if we don’t believe in rebirth, still, rather than emphasizing “my loss,” what is much more helpful is to emphasize all the wonderful things about this person that we remember and rejoice in the privilege that we had to know such a person and to have been close to such a person, and try to carry on the tradition of their good qualities. In a sense, we are the heir: we have inherited their good qualities, so we will carry them on.
Translator: We are…?
Alex: The inheritors.
This is a very helpful way to deal with the loss, rather than just thinking of: “Poor me. I no longer have them.” That doesn’t eliminate the fact that it’s sad that this person died, but it helps us to not be overwhelmed by grief.
Question: From your point of view, what is happiness?
Alex: What is happiness? The classic definition for it that we find in the Buddhist texts is: “that feeling which, when it arises, we would like for it to continue.” Which doesn’t mean that we necessarily have attachment and grasping for it, but it’s something that you would like to, just in general, to go on. Whereas unhappiness, you’d like for it to end.
Now that’s just talking about the actual experience of happiness as opposed to unhappiness. The real question is: What is the source of happiness? And Buddhism says that if we are experiencing happiness, we can be certain that it is the result of constructive behavior, whether it’s a way of thinking, or speaking, or acting. If we have been constructive, if we have done something positive, whether for ourselves or for someone else, we feel very satisfied, and what we’ve done is worthwhile, and so on.
You see, Buddhism makes a difference between happiness and pleasure. Pleasure is eating nice food that you like; you feel pleasure. But we know that our state of mind… When we talk about happiness, we’re talking about a feeling; we’re not talking about some pleasant physical sensation of a nice taste or a nice physical sensation of feeling warm or feeling embraced. We all know that sometimes we can be eating our favorite food, the most delicious food, and we’re in a bad mood, were feeling unhappy, and even eating this nice food doesn’t make us… we don’t experience it with happiness.
So that happiness is the state of mind we discuss in Buddhism. And it doesn’t have to be dramatic; very rarely are we ecstatically, dramatically happy. But if we feel that our life is worthwhile, that we are doing constructive, positive things with our life—it’s meaningful—this brings about a basic level of happiness and peace of mind that is very satisfying, despite the fact of one of the truths of life, which is that life goes up and down. So sometimes we are in a good mood, sometimes a bad mood, sometimes we feel okay, sometimes it seems as though we don’t feel anything. But that’s just normal, nothing special. What’s more important is the basic level of happiness, a feeling of satisfaction with our lives, that will sustain us through the everyday ups and downs of life. And that happiness, to emphasize again, comes from being constructive, doing something of benefit to either ourselves or others or both.
That brings us to the end of our time together this occasion, and I want to thank you very much for your kind attention.
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