Verse 84: Good role models

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Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • Why we need good role models
  • Choosing who our role models are going to be
  • The meaning of “gentle” and “true” speech

Gems of Wisdom: Verse 84 (download)

03-23-15 Good Role Models – BBCorner

Who is the best role model with advice that should always be heeded?
One who has established inner control and speaks with words both gentle and true.

We all need role models, don’t we? And nowadays when you look at pop culture and the role models we have—especially when Ted Cruz announces his candidacy for president—you wonder…. I mean, these are the role models that people have.

And we need good role models if we’re going to grow into wise and kind people. It’s really very important. So here the seventh Dalai Lama’s saying okay, what kind of role models should we look for.

Because sometimes our role model just happens to be whoever is there when we grow up. Our parents are our role models because they’re the people we spend the most time with. When we go to school our teachers become our role models. Then our peers become our role models. And then pop stars and athletes and politicians, and so on.

But how much in society do we think “who do I want my role model to be?” Do you remember every thinking about this as a young person? “Who’s my role model going to be?” As if we had some choice over the matter? I mean we have lots of choice. I remember, as a kid, I really admired Helen Keller. She was my hero. So maybe that was some kind of…. There was no term “role model.” But there was some kind of admiration for her.

But to really think—and now especially as adults—who are the people who are going to be our role models? Because those are the people that we will look at—how to they think, how do they speak, how do they act?—and we will choose to fashion ourselves after them. So we need to be really wise in selecting who our role models are.

The guidance that the seventh Dalai Lama gives us: “Someone who has established inner control and speaks with words both gentle and true.”

Inner control refers to someone with great compassion who cherishes others more than self. And also someone with wisdom. Wisdom—especially in this case as a role model for beginners—people who have wisdom about karma and its effects, and so what to practice and what to abandon. And also who have the wisdom of the ultimate nature. Because that’s going to be somebody who is well controlled internally. Because without great compassion and wisdom we’re totally out of control, aren’t we? Our mind is all over the place. And anybody who takes us as a role model is going to be in dire straights. So we need to look for role models who are well controlled, who really cherish others, and who have the wisdom of both conventional and ultimate truths. And then by emulating them and seeing how they practice, seeing what they do, developing those qualities within ourselves.

And specifically the qualities he’s recommending is “somebody who speaks with words both gentle and true.”

Because speech is very, very important. We learn a lot by watching how people interact with others and how they speak just in their daily lives. We also learn a lot from teachings. But speech is something very powerful. And so someone who speaks “both gentle and true.”

Now, the questions comes: “Does that person always have to speak gentle?” And, “What does ‘true’ mean?”

I think I sent around to you a story from Diana about Boxy scolding Joshua and somebody being quite shocked by it. And Jeffrey will tell stories like that as well. And I certainly remember my teachers scolding me and scolding a group of us. So we have to understand what gentle means. It does not always mean “pleasing to the ear.” Because pleasing to the ear means what pleases my ego. Gentle means something that is going to be beneficial for the person who hears it. And sometimes when we’re very complacent, or we’re very thick-skulled, very sweet, melodic words just roll off of us like water on visqueen. Nothing penetrates. So it’s only when your teacher is Yamantaka that then you kind of say “oh, maybe I should listen and pay attention.” So we have to understand what “gentle” means.

And also to understand what “true” means, because some people may look at some of the teachings the Buddha gave and say, “Well he contradicted himself.” Because in some situations to some people he said that there was a self. There was a self-sufficient substantially existent self. And then to other people he said there’s, let alone no self-sufficient substantially existent self, there’s not even an inherently existent self. So does that mean that what the Buddha spoke was untrue? No. It’s just he was speaking according to what was beneficial for the disciples who were in front of him at that time.

So “true” has the meaning not only of what is factually true, but what is beneficial at that time for the listener. Not for ourselves. Because what is beneficial at that time to say for ourselves is often lies. Isn’t it? Because we did something and we want to cover it up, so we say “Well, it’s better for somebody else if I tell the story a little bit differently….” In other words, that I lie. “For the benefit of the other person.” Well that’s clearly lying because the one who wants to benefit from it is us because we don’t want other people to know what we did. So that’s clearly a lie.

But the Buddha, in terms of teaching what he did would say what was needed to different people at different times. And I see that a lot with my teachers, too. Somebody will go in and say “what’s the best practice to do?” And my teacher will say “this.” And the next person will go in and say “what’s the best practice to do?” and he says “that.” Or just even on a practical situation, how to handle a practical situation, you’ll get two different answers. So you have to be very careful with “Lama says,” because Lama says different things to different people according to what is beneficial, because there’s not one external stamp of whatever you should do.

But for us who don’t have gentle speech or true speech, our speech should really focus on being gentle and true. For those people who have the ability to guide others on the path, and who cherish others more than self, who have the kind of wisdom, then I think “gentle” and “true” has a slightly different meaning because they’re able to see what is of great benefit to different people at different times.

So to make that kind of person our role model. Does this make some sense to you?

Sometimes we think, “well, ‘gentle’ means what sounds good to my ear. What pleases me. What I like to hear.” And I remember Venerable Jendy telling me a story with her teacher, who would often scold disciples, and Venerable Jendy began to really say, “Hmmm, what’s happening here?” And then one day she was talking with her teacher about something, some disciple called on the phone (one of the other nuns) and her teacher just let it out, and roared at this person. Scolded her and everything. Put the phone down, returned to talking to Venerable Jendy just like nothing had happened. Because she wasn’t angry inside. She was saying what she needed to say to get through to somebody else. And it was at that point that Venerable Jendy said, “Oh, now I understand.”

We should think about who our role models are. I would say the Buddha should be one of them. Yes? His Holiness another one. Je Tsongkhapa another one. And we can, I think, take qualities of different people as role models. Because sometimes we don’t find all the qualities displayed in a manifest way in one person, but we can take different people as role models in different areas, who really show a good way for us.

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