Taking problems onto the spiritual path
Taking problems onto the spiritual path
This is a lightly edited transcript of a talk given in Singapore in September 1995.
Instead of talking about transforming problems, I think you might prefer that I talk more about rejecting problems. Our usual attitude is to reject problems, isn’t it?
"I don’t want problems! You can have them! It’s not fair that I have problems. I shouldn’t have problems. My life should be happy. The universe is unfair if I have problems. Something’s wrong if I have problems. Everything should be perfect."
This is our usual attitude. Our usual attitude is one of rejecting problems, isn’t it? "Problems should go away because the universe should treat me better."
Why? "Because I’m me! I’m important! I should be happy! The universe should treat me very well! Nobody should mistreat me. If I mistreat other people, it’s because they deserve it. But nobody should mistreat me. Nobody should insult me. If I insult other people, it’s because they were really creeps and made a mistake. Nobody should do that to me." My happiness is really important—much more important than anybody else’s happiness. The universe should know that. Everybody should appreciate me—don’t you think? Don’t you think I’m the most important one in the universe?
Isn’t this how we think? We’re much too polite to admit it in public, but you know what I mean. This is really how we live our lives. So, our whole life, we reject problems.
"It’s never my fault"
Something is wrong. When we have a problem, it’s never our fault, is it? Have you ever started a fight? I mean, when there’s a fight, it’s always the other person’s fault. Very clearly.
When there’s a quarrel, it’s never my fault; it’s always the other person’s fault. It’s all these other people who are uncooperative, and obnoxious, domineering, bossy, and critical. Not me. "I was going through life minding my own business, completely kind-hearted, loving, compassionate to everybody. Then, all these mean people do all these awful things to me. It’s unfair. It’s terrible." Right?
I have a friend who teaches conflict management; dispute resolution. He often gives people a worksheet, to record a recent conflict they had, and to assess how they handled the conflict, and how the other person handled the conflict.
He said, "It’s remarkable! All the people who were cooperative, kind, and harmonious, they all come to the conflict resolution workshop. But all the people who were disagreeable and quarrelsome—they never come."
According to the form—it’s amazing, he said, all the people who come to him were those trying to solve the problems; who never start them. It’s just remarkable.
This is kind of how we live our life, isn’t it? Problems are never my doing, they’re somebody else’s doing. And you know—"That’s because other people are idiots. They just don’t know how to treat me properly."
Then we come to a Buddhist thing, and we hear, "Well, when you have problems; when you have suffering, it’s due to your karma." And we go—"My karma?! I’m not doing anything wrong. Look at that guy! He’s creating negative karma being mean to me. I didn’t do anything wrong. This is unfair. I’m going to complain to the Chief of Karma, because I didn’t create any negative karma. I mean, I’m just nice to everybody all the time." Right?
Me? "I never tell anybody off. I’m never judgmental. I’m never critical. I’m never hostile. I never lie to anybody. I never cheat anybody." Why is the world doing this to me?
And in my past lives, I’m sure I never did any of that. Never! "My past life, I was a Rinpoche. I was high. They just don’t recognize who I am this lifetime. But I was very special in my previous life. Maybe not a Rinpoche, but I was very high, you know? I never created any bad karma. What are you talking about, ‘it’s my bad karma’ when I have problems. Baloney!"
This is what we think, isn’t it? We accept the Dharma when it’s convenient for us. When we hear suffering comes from negative karma, we accept that so the person who’s harming us gets it in their next lifetime! Then we believe in karma. But when we have a problem—to think it’s because of what we did in our previous lifetime? Never! Never! And, certainly not this lifetime.
"I am always right"
We’re all right, aren’t we? We’re always right. When there’s a conflict, we’re always right. So there’s no need to talk about "Transforming Problems," because we’re right. There’s nothing to transform. "I’m right! You’re wrong! You change!" Very easy. That’s how we should solve problems.
We kind of go through our whole life with that attitude, don’t we? When there’s a problem: "I’m right, you’re wrong. You should do something different. Me? I shouldn’t. I’m just the innocent victim."
This attitude really compounds problems because every time we face some difficulty, first we reject the difficulty, and secondly, we blame it on the other person. Both of these typical behaviors and attitudes really increase problems. Because, when we reject a problem, then we’re fighting the reality. The reality is—there’s a problem. There’s suffering. I have a problem. Something’s not going right.
So, I think a lot of our mental suffering comes because we don’t accept there is a problem, and we think the universe is being unfair and should be different. Our non-acceptance of the problem gives us more trouble than the problem itself. We get all tangled up in our thoughts about how it’s unfair, it shouldn’t happen, and blah, blah, blah, blah. Our non-acceptance makes it worse.
Blaming the problem on the other person increases the problem, too. Because, we can never control the other person, can we? The problem is the other person’s fault—that means, I have no power. I have nothing to do, because I’m not involved in it at all. If the problem is entirely the other person’s fault, then the only way to solve the problem is for the other person to change. But we can’t make them change. And we try. We try very hard, don’t we? It is very hard to make others change. We give them lots of advice. Especially our family members. So much advice—"You should do this, and you should do that; why don’t you do this, and why don’t you do that?" We give everybody advice, and they don’t appreciate us. They tell us to mind our own business. We’re just giving them advice about how they should improve and be happy … and they say, "Get off my case, I don’t want to hear your advice!" And we reply, "Oh, but I was just trying to help you."
When we have this attitude of always blaming others for our problems, we very much give up our power and ability to do anything. We can’t control the other person. We can’t make them change.
Being right does not necessarily solve a problem
We might be right. There might be a conflict, and we might be very right, and the other person might be wrong. But so what? Sometimes being right doesn’t solve the conflict at all, does it? We can be very, very right and even the court system can agree that we’re right and the other guy is wrong. But there’s still conflict, and there’s still unhappiness. Being right doesn’t solve the conflict.
And rubbing it in to the other person, that we are right, doesn’t solve the conflict either. And it doesn’t make the other person change. Frequently, when we’re right, we really rub it in to the other person, don’t we? Then, they feel hurt. They feel misunderstood. They feel rejected. And they become even more entrenched in their position than before. They’re certainly not going to go out of their way to help us when we’re rubbing it in that we’re right and they’re wrong.
So, often we have to give up this idea that just because we’re right, everything should change, and the other person should do something differently. We might explain to them how their behavior is harmful and they should do things differently, but they have been doing it this way fifty or sixty years, fifty or sixty lifetimes, so they are not going to change right away. Sometimes we need to develop a little patience. Being right is not sufficient.
But it’s hard, isn’t it? When we can see very clearly what somebody’s mistake is, and we know exactly how they should improve, and they don’t do it, and we still have to live with them? We still have to live with them, don’t we? We can’t throw them in a garbage can. We try. But they’re too big. They don’t fit.
We cannot force people to change
This is something hard about life. Especially when it happens in Buddhist centers, or at work, or in families—when there’s conflict and we might be right, and we must accept that the other person is not going to change. Sometimes they don’t know how to change. They don’t know how to do something differently. They have this pattern, and that’s the way it is. The only way for us to be happy is to accept them for what they are. What they are may not be what we want them to be. But surely, what we are isn’t what they want us to be either. So we’re kind of even, aren’t we?
It’s an interesting thing to play with—to think about conflicts in our own life; problems in our own life—to see how we always want the other person to change, because, "it’s their fault." Then, to think, "Is it really realistic? Is that person going to change? Do they know how to change?"
If they’re not going to change, then what can we do—spend the next ten years or the rest of our lives hating them? Quarrelling with them? Making everyone else in the family, or the Buddhist center, or on the job, miserable, because we’re always arguing, because, "They don’t change!"?
Whereas, if there is a way to accept the fact they aren’t going to be who I want them to be … kind of an interesting thought, isn’t it? Accepting people for what they are? Accepting they may not be what we want them to be?
It’s hard, isn’t it? Because, we feel, they really should be what we want them to be. They should! "How am I going to be happy if they aren’t what I want them to be?" So, we go back and forth in this way. We truly have to work quite deeply with our mind, very hard with our mind, developing a kind of acceptance of people for what they are.
Our role in conflicts
We also need to work very hard with looking at our own role in conflicts, acknowledging our own parts. This can often require accepting what we did in this lifetime to get involved in the conflict, and also considering what we did in previous lives may be involved.
When there is a conflict, there is more than one side, more than one person. How can we say it is always the other person’s fault? If I was not there, there would not be a conflict. So, how did I get here? What am I doing? What did I do that bugged the other person so that they’re acting like this? Maybe I did nothing. Maybe it’s all coming from their side—in which case, then, it’s due to my previous life’s karma.
But, sometimes, looking in this lifetime we can see we haven’t been the most considerate person to other people. They get angry and upset with something we’ve done, and we feel, well, "Why me? What did I do? I didn’t do anything." Yet, if we look a bit closer, maybe we did.
Sometimes we did something without meaning to, and we were just careless, completely unaware. It’s not that we’re bad people. We’re not careful, so we do something disturbing to somebody, and they get angry.
And at other times, we do things and we kind of know it’s going to bother the other person, don’t we? It’s the small things … we kind of do it, and try to slip by as if it were just an accident? But we know it’s going to bug the other person. And we do this with the people we live with, the people we know very well. Because we know what bugs them, don’t we? They know what bugs us; we know what bugs them.
Say, my husband’s not paying enough attention to me … so I just do this little thing. It’s very innocent. But he gets mad, and I go, "What did I do? You’re always so irritable! Why are you behaving like this? You don’t love me?"
But if we look closely, we know what we’re doing. We know how to push their buttons. And, so sometimes, part of our mind deliberately pushes other people’s buttons. Because then they pay attention to us. Finally my husband stops reading the newspaper and looks at me!
Thus, often it’s worthwhile to think in a situation, "Did I do something carelessly, or maybe with my own rather manipulative mind wanting to irritate the other person?" In this case I should own up to it, and acknowledge my role in the conflict. Then, seeing how our own energy, in this lifetime, was involved in the conflict, that gives us some ability to actually transform the problem. We see what we could do differently. "If I were more careful, if I didn’t deliberately push that person’s button, then some of these conflicts wouldn’t happen."
Now, especially in families, there are repeated conflicts. Have you ever noticed we fight about the same things all the time in the family? It’s like, "Okay, we’re going to have Fight Number Five. Put in that video!" Now, we have the five standard fights—we lack creativity. We can’t think of something new to fight about. It’s the same old thing … 25 years, we’re fighting over the same stuff. And it’s the same with our parents and our kids, isn’t it? Same old spats, again and again and again. It’s real boring, isn’t it? Boring. We know precisely what’s going to happen—we’re going to say this; they’re going to say that—you could almost write a script for it. It’s true, isn’t it? We could write a script: "Okay … you’re lying…"
It would be good to trade roles, then … "Okay, Fight Number Five. You play me and I’ll play you, and then, let’s go do it!" Because, the fight is so old hat. We’ve done it again and again. "So, let’s switch roles this time, okay? You be the one who wants to spend the money, and I’ll be the one who wants to save the money. Let’s do it differently this time!"
This is why it’s so interesting—seeing what our role is in this lifetime, how we get involved; then also, recognizing the karmic effects from our previous lifetime. There are many times we don’t deliberately antagonize someone, we really are minding our own business, and someone gets all bent out of shape over something we do, and they really rip into us. And, it’s like, "Wooo … what’s happening here?"
Those who harm are expressing their own pain
Often, if we look closely, the other person is acting out of their own pain and unhappiness, and confusion. It doesn’t really have so much to do with us.
But we take it personally anyway, don’t we? Often, what the other person is doing when they are dumping on us—being critical, speaking harshly—is they’re making a stronger statement about themselves than about us. They’re actually saying, "I’m unhappy," or, "I’m confused," or, "I’m miserable." But, we don’t hear that message. We only hear, "Get off my toes! What are you doing to me?!"
Then, it’s often effective to step back and think, "Why is this person doing this? What are they really trying to say? What’s motivating them?" And that approach helps us to develop some compassion towards them.
Problems arising from karma created in previous lives
Considering our previous life’s karma is involved can be very helpful, too. Especially when somebody criticizes us and we feel, "I really didn’t do anything." It’s helpful to think, "Well, maybe in previous lives, I criticized somebody."
Look at us! We’ve all hurt others’ feelings. We’ve all criticized others. We’ve lied. We’ve stolen. Ten nonvirtuous acts? We’ve all done them! We know everything about each other. We’ve all done this—in previous lives especially, we’ve had lots of time for training in nonvirtue. No, not so much training for virtue in previous lives … otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. You know? Very good practice in nonvirtue. So, of course, this lifetime we have some problems. It’s no big surprise. Is it? It’s really no big surprise.
I find this way of thinking very, very helpful for situations when I feel I had no intention of starting a conflict, and yet here’s this whole horrible thing happening. If I think, obviously, in previous lives I did something, and here it is, and it’s ripening, then I accept it.
I accept it. It’s ripening. I got myself into this situation. Now, my job is to ensure I don’t create more negative karma. Because clearly the problem now is due to a previous life’s karma. So, at least let’s not create more negative karma, and we can avoid perpetuating the same thing again.
But, what often happens, how do we react when we have a problem? We get angry, don’t we? Or, we get very attached. We have a problem, so we cling to something because we feel insecure. Or, we want to strike back at whatever is causing our problem. Yet, when we react to problems with clinging, or anger, what we do is create karmic imprints for problems in future lives. And we continue the cycle.
Personally, I find it helpful to think, "Okay. This is a result of my previous lives’ karma. No sense getting attached. No sense getting angry. Here it is. It’s happening, folks. I just have to live through it. I must do as best I can to make the best of this situation."
Problems provide opportunity for growth
It’s often quite helpful when recognizing the problem as due to karma, to transform that problem, saying, "Okay. This is the challenge." Instead of rejecting the problem, say, "This situation is a challenge for me to grow." Our problems are challenges for us to grow, aren’t they? They really are. Often, if we look back over our life, we see the times when we’ve grown the most are those times we’ve had lots of problems. Can you look back at times when you’ve had problems, really painful times in your life, and look at yourself now, seeing how you are as a result of having had that experience?
And sure, it was painful. It was awful. But it’s over now. It doesn’t exist anymore. We lived through it. And, we actually grew in some ways. Because, in particular, when things are really a challenge, when everything seems to be falling apart around us, then, that’s an excellent opportunity to find our own inner resources, and the support of our community, or within our Dharma friends in the broader society.
So, when we have problems, there really is a lot of opportunity for growth. If we take that opportunity. If we avoid retreating into our old patterns, like getting angry, or feeling sorry for ourselves.
Checking if our old behavior patterns and habits make us happy
We fall so easily into our old patterns of self-pity, or lashing out and dumping on the other person. But when we do, we never grow. We completely ignore the whole opportunity for growth that this problem is presenting. We just do the same old thing again and again. And the curious thing is, the same old thing never makes us happy, does it? We have these old behaviors for handling problems, and they never work. Say there’s a conflict, and I’m so mad; and what’s my typical behavior? "I’m so mad at you that I’m not going to talk to you! Chao!" I shut down, completely. I will not talk to you. I walk out of the room when you come in. I look away. I go to my room feeling sorry for myself, and angry at you.
And we think this is going to make us happy. So we keep doing it. And, we feel miserable.
So, I believe it’s very important for us to identify our old habits, our old patterns, do some serious reflection, while asking, "Do these old patterns and habits make me happy? Do they actually resolve the conflict?"
Or, do we get unhappier because of the way we’re handling the conflict? I say, "I’m so mad, so I won’t talk to you!" Then, I complain how we’re not communicating. Isn’t that it? They respond, "Well how can I communicate when you won’t talk to me?" And we bark, "Well, you should find a way, because it’s all your fault, anyway!"
Consequently, it’s extremely helpful to try a new way of looking at a situation, and to try a new kind of behavior.
My friend who teaches conflict management says, sometimes when you feel really stuck in a problem, do exactly what you don’t want to do. He says, sometimes you need to break that pattern, break that cycle. Do the exact opposite of what you feel like doing. So, if you’re so angry you don’t want to talk to the other person, then maybe the challenge is to go and talk to them. Or, if we’re so mad that we want to talk and never want to listen, then perhaps the thing to do is be quiet and listen.
Often, it’s quite helpful to realize, "Hey, here’s my old pattern, this is how I usually handle it. I’ve tried that before, and it doesn’t work. How could I think differently? How could I behave differently?" Then we can develop some creativity with the situation. Play with it. "Well, what would happen if I did this? What would result if I looked at it this way?" So, instead of the situation seeming so solid, so concrete, so terrible, we develop some creativity to handle it in a new way.
Now, someone might say, "But some situations are so awful, how can we see them in a new way?" Or, "Someone in my family is dying, and you talk about an opportunity to see problems in a new way? What do you mean? There’s only one possible way for me to behave, and that is to go crazy! I have to go crazy with grief because this person I love is dying … there is no alternative!"
This is how we think at times. We get all wrapped up in our grief, totally bogged down and tied up. But, when we think there is but one way to handle it, we miss out on everything the situation has to offer. If it’s true someone we love is dying, it may be we can do nothing to prevent it. That is the reality. But, they have not died yet. And maybe during the time we still have, we can really communicate. Maybe we can say a lot of the things we have failed to say to each other before. Perhaps we can share something very deep and meaningful. As long as there is life, there is still a lot of potential and richness in how you can relate, and what you can share with another.
Thus, it is significant to stop and question ourselves, to see the potential in situations, and get away from locking ourselves into the belief that there is but one way to feel, one way to act. There is always a choice. The thing is, do we take this choice?
Think about how to apply these approaches to problems in your own life. Because if you do this, then the Dharma will become really tasty, very meaningful. But if you simply listen to the Dharma and think of it abstractly … "Oh, she’s talking about problems ‘out there’; other people’s problems," then, you never taste it. We must look at the Dharma in terms of our own life; bringing it to bear on our own actions.
The "beat-myself-up" syndrome
There are situations where we have a problem, and, perhaps, we blame ourselves. We are very good at that, too, aren’t we? We can really get into that one … "It’s all my fault. Something is wrong with me. I’m terrible. I’m this awful person! Look at me! Oh, nobody can love me. I’m horrible. I did it again!"
It’s called the "Beat-myself-up" syndrome. And we do it very, very well. Very well. But this is that same faulty way of thinking, that when there’s a problem it comes only from one cause. It’s like blaming the other person, but in this case the "other person" is yourself. It’s the same narrow way of thinking. Except, it’s fascinating, in that it’s really a way of making ourselves extremely important. "The whole thing collapsed because of me. I’m such an idiot; I’m so incompetent, I make the entire project a disaster." Or, "The whole family is in turmoil, all because of me."
We’re very important, then, aren’t we? Extremely important. So it’s very curious how, when we get into this performance of blaming ourselves, and feeling guilty, and self-hatred, it’s actually a rather contorted way our self-cherishing mind has of making us extremely important.
Being clear about what our responsibilities are
It’s so strange. I find we often fail to do things that are our responsibility, thinking they are someone else’s responsibility. And things that are not our responsibility, we accept responsibility for, and blame ourselves. It’s very, very interesting. Very curious. And, I think, parents do this a lot.
When your child has a problem, you think, "It’s my fault. I should protect my child from every single problem in this universe." Parents love their children. Their children are helpless. So, it’s, "I should protect my child from every problem." The kid is 25 years old, and he stubs his toe—"It’s my fault!" Or, my boy’s 35 and fighting with his colleague—"It’s my fault." We blame ourselves for all sorts of things that are not our fault at all. They’re someone else’s responsibility.
This is quite thought-provoking. I think we need to go back and do a lot of meditation on this, reflecting on what it means to be responsible, and what things are our responsibility, and what are not? And, when things are my responsibility, am I the only person playing a role in this, or does it have something to do with another person? This concept of blaming ourselves is very lop-sided. We are not the only one making this whole world go wrong. There are other factors in the situation.
Now sometimes, it’s true, people have had a negative experience in the past, and we do something similar to what occurred to them before. So they get really, really defensive. We can’t understand why. So it’s often wise just to cool down, and recognize you need not take this so personally. This person isn’t really attacking you. They are attacking the past experience. That isn’t your responsibility. You are only responsible for what you said, or did, to trigger the problem. If their reaction is way out of proportion, if they are unhappy and something else is going on with them, then maybe you need to ask some questions. Give them a chance to express themselves. Help them discover what’s really at the root of the situation, and what is really bugging them.
I have had that happen to me. Once I did something, not intending to start a conflict, and this other person was so angry they told me off for, like, 45 minutes over the phone. I mean, I’m glad they were paying for it. No … it’s a local call. Maybe that’s why it lasted so long? If it were long-distance, maybe they wouldn’t have talked that long?
Anyway, they totally dumped on me. It was incredible, and over this small thing. But, seeing this person’s reaction was well out of proportion to what was going on, I just kind of sat there, listening. I didn’t need to take it personally. Something was going on with this person and they really needed to unload. And now, when I see this person, everything is fine. There was no residual hangover from that conflict.
Reacting to others’ negative actions
Perhaps we might see somebody doing something negative, say, catching fish, or something like that. How can we convince them? Well, frequently we aren’t in a position to convince them. Sometimes it’s better to say nothing. As long as sentient beings have a garbage mind, they are going to kill. I mean, when you get angry, is it the lama’s fault he can’t control your mind?
When you get angry, if someone comes along and says, "Jangchub, don’t get angry," do you say, "Oh yes, I’ll listen to you. You’re right."? No. You say, "No, I’m angry for a reason! You be quiet!" Look at us. Other people offer us advice. We don’t listen, do we? Not very carefully.
But sometimes when somebody’s doing something negative, we can want to intervene out of compassion. And sometimes we want to intervene out of a sense of being self-righteous. These are two very different motivations. We really must distinguish between the two. It’s very easy, when we’re self-righteous, to think we’re being compassionate. But we aren’t compassionate, we’re all puffed up with ourselves. Then it’s, "I know good ethics. I know good karma. You’re doing it wrong! You should listen to me because I’m morally superior. I know more about Dharma. You should listen to me and follow my example!"
We don’t actually say it like that, because we would look bad. But that is what we’re thinking. We’re being very proud and self-righteous. We’re not helping anyone. We’re just acting out of our own garbage mind.
That’s very different than seeing somebody doing something negative, and having true compassion for them, as well as for whoever they’re harming—two completely different motivations, even though the action may seem the same.
We must look beyond the action and at the motivation.
In the place I where live in the States, there is a lake nearby. I sometimes walk around, and I’ll see people fishing. When I see them pull up a fish, it’s very painful for me. I want to go to that person and say, "Please, put the fish back and don’t do this." But, I know that’s not a skilful way to handle the situation. They’re not going to listen. They’re more likely to get angry and probably think negatively of me and about Buddhism. And they’re still going to kill the fish.
I’m not the right person in that situation to help them, and it’s not a situation where I can really help.
I can do nothing directly, so in my heart I make prayers. When I see the fishermen out there, I pray they don’t catch any fish. I do! I don’t tell them I’m praying this. And, when they do catch a fish, I do the taking and giving meditation. I really pray, "Can this person in some future time meet the Dharma and begin to see the error in what they are doing, and correct it."
But, you see, it’s significant, when we see people doing negative things, occasionally we are the right person and it’s the right situation, and we can intervene. And sometimes we should not.
It’s also important to remember to check our own behavior; look at our own mind, checking our motivation, ensuring we are acting out of a true heart of kindness.
Now let’s consider someone who’s blaming themselves for having done something wrong. Again, what we can do depends on the situation and our relationship with that person. Sometimes the best we can do is to listen to them. Let them talk. Help them by asking questions. Help them realize all the responsibility does not fall on their shoulders.
Sometimes that’s not the best way to handle it. Sometimes if the person feels very bad for having done something, then it’s helpful to encourage them to do some purification practice. Then, either teach them some purification practice or introduce them to a teacher who can. So, it depends much on the situation.
Question & answer session
- Q: Can the masters take away the bad karma of their disciples?
If they could, they would have already. Isn’t it true? The Buddha is so compassionate, if the Buddha could have taken away all of our bad karma, the Buddha would have done it already. Our teachers are very compassionate. If they could take away our bad karma, they would have done it.
The way our teachers intercede and help us is by teaching us the Dharma. They can’t take away our bad karma, like washing the dirt off our hands. They can’t do that. But they can teach us how to wash the dirt off our own hands. Our teachers help us to take away our negative karma by teaching us the Dharma. Then, by practicing the Dharma, we are able to purify our own mind. No one else can purify our mind for us. We must do that for ourselves. Nobody can generate realizations on the path for us. We have to do that for ourselves. But our teachers can help us, and that is why we need teachers.
- Q: How do we apply the notion of emptiness to transforming problems?
It is very interesting, this potential of applying emptiness to a problem. There are many ways to do this.
Often when we think, "I have a problem," we think, "Oh, everything is so heavy! The whole notion of my problem is heavy. My problem is very concrete. It’s very real. It’s so real I can almost touch it. I mean, this is my problem! It’s there!"
It’s very helpful at that point, to ask ourselves, "What is this problem? Where is this problem?" Because our idea is, "I have this problem," as if it’s this real thing, almost physical. So where is it? Is the problem inside me? Is the problem inside you? Is it in the space between us? Is the problem the sound waves that are going back and forth between us? Is the problem my ideas? Your ideas? Where are my ideas? Where are your ideas? Where is the problem, really?
It’s very interesting when we start analyzing and ask, "What really is a problem; where is this problem?" All of a sudden this problem that seemed so real, so concrete, somehow disintegrates a little. We can’t find it. It doesn’t seem so concrete anymore, because we can’t find where it is. So, that is one way of applying the idea of emptiness to transforming problems.
And when we have a problem, we also have a strong sense of "I," don’t we? "I hurt. I have a problem." When we have a problem, the "I," the sense of self is extremely strong. "This is my problem!"
The self is very real. Anything happening to the self is much more important than what happens to others. So there’s a very strong sense of a self that is suffering at this point. Then, it’s a very interesting experiment, too, to hold onto that strong sense of self that is being treated so unjustly, and that is suffering, and with another part of the mind, ask ourselves, "Who’s suffering? Who’s the one who has the problem?"
The self with the problem seemed really solid. So if there were really a solid self with a problem, we should be able to find that person. "Who is it? Who has the problem? Who is in pain? Is it my body? Is it my mind? Which thought? Which part of my body? Which part of my mind?" And again, this seemingly very solid self with a problem, can’t be found. The idea of this tangible self starts to evaporate. This is another way to apply the meditation on emptiness.
- Q: When we have a problem, it has been said we can pray to our Guru and receive some blessings. Where do these blessings come from?
No. When they say "receiving the blessing" or "receiving the inspiration," what this means is that our mind is transformed. It’s not some real, solid, concrete thing coming from the lama and going "boing" and we got it, okay? What is very often happening, I think, is very different, and it depends on how we pray to the Buddha, or to our lamas.
We might pray, "Buddha, please make this problem go away." And, that is not the right way to pray. We should pray, "Buddha, please help me to find my inner strength and resources to deal with this problem, and transform it into the path to enlightenment."
Now, when we transform a problem, it ceases to be a problem. And we transform it by changing our attitude. So depending on how we pray, and depending on our attitude when our mind is transformed, that is called receiving the blessings. Sometimes maybe, some energy from the lama is happening at that time. But often, because we’ve previously heard teachings, when we pray, "Please help me find my internal strengths and resources," this opens our mind to recalling what our lama has taught. And when we remember, we begin applying them, and our mind gets transformed. But sometimes, unless we pray properly, we don’t remember the teachings, so we don’t use them.
You might need to observe your own mind, and what occurs when you pray, and as a result of it—and how that helps your mind. Think about what receiving the blessing means from your own experience.
But receiving the blessing is not something the lama does—it’s not like, "Oh here, have a blessing." Because sometimes our minds are very fertile and are easily transformed. And sometimes our minds are like a rock. At times we could sit in front of Shakyamuni Buddha himself, and if our mind is like a rock, nothing is going in. We’re going to be cynical, bitter, and sarcastic, even sitting in front of Shakyamuni Buddha.
That isn’t the Buddha’s fault. Our not receiving the inspiration isn’t the Buddha’s problem. It’s because our mind is so obscured by negative karma, there is no space. So we need to do some purification. Purification is very important.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.