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Healing anger in times of conflict

Healing anger in times of conflict

Cover of the book 'Healing Anger' by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

On September 11, 2001, a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks were launched by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda upon the United States in New York City and Washington, D.C. Venerable Thubten Chodron teaches on how to cultivate fortitude in the face of harm.

Cover of the book 'Healing Anger' by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

We need to listen to the teachings and use them to help our own minds so that we can be a force for peace in our world.

This evening, I’ll begin to give a commentary on His Holiness the Dalai Lama‘s book, Healing Anger. In light of last week’s attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, this is very timely. Many people in our country are upset and angry about what happened, and some of you may be as well. Please listen to these teachings and use them to help your own mind so that you can be a force for peace in our world.

A few weeks ago I was talking about dealing with a type of suffering to which we usually respond with anger. One way is to think of the pain of others who are suffering more than we are. Then our suffering doesn’t appear so bad in comparison with theirs. My mom used to say something similar when I was young, “Appreciate what you have and stop complaining.” This is true, but I had always taken that remark to mean that I shouldn’t feel what I was feeling, and so I often resented it. Some of the Buddhist sages give similar advice: By comparing our suffering to that of beings in unfortunate realms, we won’t feel so sorry for ourselves or so angry about what we are experiencing.

Last week not only did planes crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but my hard disk crashed as well. I lost all data. Normally, this would make me really upset, but this time my mind was calm. Without even trying to have such an awareness, I automatically thought that the suffering of a crashed hard disk is nothing compared to the suffering of those who died and those who lost their loved ones in the attack. This gave me a new way to look at the antidote of comparing my suffering to others in order to diminish my anger. I didn’t resent it at all. Nor did I see it as telling me not to feel what I was feeling. Rather, it was a clear acceptance of the truth of the situation.

Anger happens all the time. For example, while walking here tonight, I saw one man shouting and banging another’s head against a wall. The other man fell to the ground. I went over to see if he was okay, but somebody else was already helping him up. I was going to call the police; but then I heard someone on a cell phone across the street doing just that.

So anger is there and it comes up. We definitely need some kind of antidote, some kind of remedy so that our anger doesn’t control us and make us act in ways that harm others and ourselves. The trick is not to wait until the anger gets big, because then it’s difficult to control. For example, once our garden is taken over by weeds, it’s hard to get them out. We have to remove the weeds when they’re still small and few in number. The trick is to work on our anger each day, step-by-step applying the antidotes to reform the way we look at situations. When we are familiar with new ways of looking at situations, anger won’t arise in a situation where it normally would, or if it does, it’s much smaller than before.

With awareness of any anger we may hold regarding September 11, let’s do the visualization for taking refuge and generating the four immeasurables. Visualize the Buddha in the space in front of us, surrounded by all the bodhisattvas, arhats, and lineage teachers. Our mother is on our left, our father on our right. In front of us are Osama bin Laden and all the terrorists. Also there are the people in our own country calling for violent revenge. Surrounding us are all sentient beings as far as the eye can see.

Remember that everyone equally wants happiness and wants to be free from suffering. Recall that, just like us, people act in harmful ways when they are unhappy. In their attempt to be happy, they are confused and use wrong methods to achieve it. They harm others and create vast negative karma that causes them to experience horrendous suffering in the future. Recall the suffering and despair of everyone on all sides of the conflict; be aware of this karmic complexity that we’re all caught in together. And with compassion for all of us, we then turn to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for spiritual direction.

Refuge and generating the altruistic intention

I take refuge until I’m enlightened in the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha. By the positive potential I create by listening to the Dharma, may I attain Buddhahood in order to benefit all sentient beings.

The four immeasurables

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes.
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes.
May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss.
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free from bias, attachment, and anger.

To generate our motivation for listening to teachings, remember the preciousness of our human life, which is hard to attain and doesn’t last long. Let’s determine to use it in a meaningful way and not get sidetracked by things that don’t have lasting value or importance. One of the best ways to make our life meaningful is to cultivate the loving and compassionate heart of bodhicitta, the strong aspiration to become a fully enlightened Buddha in order to benefit all beings most effectively.

We’ll begin with Geshe Thubten Jinpa’s introduction to the book. He tells the story about a meditator who is practicing patience. Staying in his high cave, he is very peaceful. Meditating on patience, he thinks his practice is getting somewhere and his temper is completely calmed. Then, when he goes down to the village to get some more food, someone insults him, and he instantly flies into a rage.

Teachers often use this story to illustrate a few points. One is: Don’t think that because you are meditating in an isolated retreat place, that you are necessarily holy. Unless we really work with what’s going on in our mind, it doesn’t matter where our body is or what we are doing. Another is: Cultivating patience is difficult. We shouldn’t think that because we don’t get angry for a while that our anger has totally subsided. A third is: We can intellectually know and even teach others the antidotes to anger, but it takes a long time to integrate them fully in our own hearts. Knowing something is different from being able to live it.

Sometimes, when we meditate to cultivate patience, we just repeat the words to ourselves, like an intellectual exercise. We think that because we’ve recited the words while sitting on our meditation cushion, that we’ve understood and actualized patience. But activating patience is much more than reciting the words; it involves looking deeply into our own hearts, acknowledging our pain and the anger it generates. We must also know deeply that our anger causes suffering and that it apprehends the situation in a mistaken way. With all this in mind, we can generate the wish to let go of our anger and train in the methods to do so.

When we first meet the Dharma, it seems easier for us to admit “I’m angry” or “I have a problem with anger.” But then, as we get into Buddhist practice a bit, we learn that anger is a defilement and something to be abandoned on the path. We learn that through anger we create so much negative karma. Then we start “shoulding” ourselves. “I shouldn’t feel angry. If I feel angry, I’m not a good Buddhist. If I show my anger, everyone will know what a bad practitioner I am.”

So then, we stuff our anger and cover it up. By this time, we’ve learned a few verses and heard a few antidotes. We keep our anger inside and in public say, “I’m not angry. I have compassion for this person.” But when we sit on our meditation cushion, our mind is turbulent, “I’m going to get that guy!” Or, we’re nice to the person in public but then talk about them behind their back because we’re really ticked off. We don’t express our real feelings when we’re with our teachers or Dharma friends because we think it’s not nice to do that if you are a Buddhist.

At that point, it has become more difficult to acknowledge our anger. At the beginning, when we enter Dharma practice, we are more honest and say, “Yes, I’m angry. That’s why I’m here. I’m hurting. I want to learn how to work with my emotions.” But later, we try to cram ourselves into our intellectual idea of what a good practitioner should be and thus don’t want to acknowledge our faults in front of others. The Buddha didn’t say that we’ve got to be “good Buddhists.” But we say it to ourselves, because we always wanted to be good little whatevers when we were kids. We want to be good little whatevers now that we are big. This makes it harder to acknowledge our anger to ourselves and to our fellow Dharma practitioners, basically because we don’t want to lose face.

At this point, we have to look out because arrogance and pride have become obstacles to our practice. Because we don’t want to lose face by admitting that we are still angry. In this way, one negative emotion plays into another. It is valuable for us to try to keep a fresh mind so that we can acknowledge whatever we are feeling. I call it “being transparent.” We aren’t afraid to say, “I blew it,” or “My mind was overwhelmed by garbage.” But, as long as we are trying to be good little Buddhists, we will find engaging in actual Dharma practice difficult. Why? Because when we are trying to be good little Buddhists, we see Buddhism as “out there” and feel, “I’ve got to squeeze myself into being a good Buddhist.” The Buddha didn’t teach so that we could become good Buddhists. He gave us suggestions so that we can bring the teachings into our hearts and change what’s in there. Spiritual practice isn’t for the purpose of pretending that we are something that we aren’t. It’s to help us be fearless and acknowledge what’s really going on; it’s to help us learn and apply the antidotes to negative mental states so that we and others will be happier. Thus being able to acknowledge when we blow it and to keep trying without getting discouraged is very important.

The meaning of patience

I read one part of the introduction with totally different ears today than I would have two weeks ago. Let me read this slowly and see how it sounds for you.

In a situation which would ordinarily give rise to an outburst of anger, how do we maintain spontaneity and yet remain calm in our response? It is a challenge each of us faces as we try to live our lives with a degree of human dignity and decency. At nearly every turn, we are confronted with situations that test the limits of our patience and tolerance. Be it with our family, in the working environment, or simply when interacting with others—and I might add here ‘or on the international scene’—often our prejudices are revealed, our beliefs challenged, and our self-image threatened.

Did this happen to anybody this last week? It happened to the whole country, didn’t it?

It is in these moments that our inner resources are the most called upon. All of this, Shantideva would say, tests our character, revealing how far we have developed our capacity for patience and tolerance.

Thinking about this passage, has anyone here not seen prejudice arise in their mind regarding the events of last Tuesday? Has anyone here not had their beliefs about humanity, or what human beings are capable of, or confidence in our own government, challenged? Wasn’t the self-image of this country threatened by one event? We thought we were the one, invincible, worthy-of-respect superpower in the world, and look what happened to us. Wasn’t our personal self-image and ability to withstand things challenged? Sometimes we hear teachings on patience and take them in terms of our interpersonal relationships with other people. But thinking about what patience means in an international event like this is a whole different ball game, isn’t it?

Thupten Jinpa also went on to comment, and I completely agree, that patience doesn’t mean passivity. It doesn’t mean we don’t respond to things. It doesn’t mean we just sit there, let things go by, and brush them off. It doesn’t mean we passively say, “It’s all right.” It doesn’t mean we make up excuses for the other person and say what they did was okay. Nor does patience mean not responding out of fear for our own well-being.

Patience is a state of mind that enables us to actively respond to a situation without losing control of our emotions. Thupten Jinpa gave a working definition of patience:

A resolute response against adversity stemming from a settled temperament, unperturbed by either external or internal disturbance where one has adopted a conscious stance not to retaliate against an actual or perceived harm.

Patience involves not retaliating or taking revenge. But it doesn’t mean not to respond. When our mind is seeking revenge, we are not acting freely. We are acting under the control of our hurt, angry, and upset mind. We know that doing that won’t bring the desired results.

Nevertheless, not taking revenge does not mean doing nothing. Patience enables us to make a resolute response. External disturbances can be what other people are saying or doing. Internal disturbances are our own preconceptions and anger. In other words, patience involves having a clear and calm mind in confronting suffering, harm, and all of our beliefs being challenged. Having that calm mind gives us the opportunity to wisely choose behaviors that could help in the situation.

Patience doesn’t mean cowardliness or passivity. It means having that internal calm and clarity so that we can actually be effective. When we are angry and upset, we can’t think clearly. We are pushed by the force of our wish for revenge; we think that if we can make somebody else suffer, it will lessen our own suffering. Does it? No.

Anger also makes us think, “If I can harm somebody else, then I must be powerful. If I can throw my weight around, look tough, and make others afraid of me, I must be powerful.” Does harming someone else make us powerful? No, it doesn’t. Why do we harm others? Usually because we feel powerless. Anger often comes as a response to fear and feeling powerless. Feeling our hurt, feeling our fear, feeling powerless in a situation—this feels so uncomfortable that we can’t bear it. How do we avoid those feelings? By getting angry. Physiologically and psychologically, anger makes us feel powerful. As one prisoner told me, “Anger is intoxicating.”

However, when we act according to our anger, we often make a situation worse and bring about a result opposite to what we desire. When we act out of anger, there is no wisdom or compassion in what we do. Thus, in our attempt to correct a situation, we inflame it even more and do exactly what is going to tick off the other side even more. For example, both the Palestinians and the Israelis want to be happy. Neither are. Both are afraid of the other and feel powerless to stop the other’s attacks. So both attack the other in what each calls “self-defense” but what the other calls “unprovoked attacks.” So, they feed off each other, inflaming each other’s anger and revenge, even though in their own minds, each thinks their side is right and wants peace.

In July I gave a talk at a prison in North Carolina. One guy asked about maintaining your cool when somebody is in your face and you really want to get back at them and punch them. I told him, “If you get angry, you’ve done exactly what they wanted you to do. If you retaliate, you’ve played right into their trap. They wanted to provoke you and they succeeded.”

We need to think here, so that we can be active without being reactive; so that we can choose responses without simply being conditioned by the force of our uncontrolled emotions. Often, when we can’t acknowledge our negative emotions to ourselves, we wind up investing them with a philosophy that justifies them. Have you noticed that whatever position we take, God is on our side? From the terrorists’ viewpoint, God is on their side. They think they are working for a better world with God’s endorsement. From the viewpoint of the US government, with its saber rattling, God is on its side. It’s interesting that both Osama bin Laden and George Bush have said that this is a battle between good and evil. But both feel that their side is the good one, that they are the moral, upright ones who are trying to subdue the forces of evil. Both think God is on their side. In saying this, I’m not excusing anyone’s harmful actions; I’m simply pointing out how the human works, how everyone feels their side is right and the other is wrong.

Here’s the tricky one: If we get angry at those in the US who want to drop bombs ASAP, then we’re thinking that God is on our side.

In other words, “God” is whatever we consider moral, decent and civilized. We—whoever we are—hold to a philosophy that justifies why we are moral and right and others are immoral and evil. We think whatever we do is justified and beneficent and whatever the enemy does is evil. In this way, we do not feel that we are vengeful. Rather, we feel we are being compassionate and working for the good of the world by trying to destroy the enemy so that they can’t harm anybody else.

When we’re angry and want to harm others, we adopt a philosophy that justifies and condones our actions. It can be a religious philosophy or an economic and social philosophy like communism or capitalism. The communists killed millions of people through the belief that their philosophy was right. Capitalists have also, exploiting people in their own and other countries through their greed. Everyone develops a philosophy that justifies their wish to be powerful or to take revenge.

This often happens because we can’t acknowledge what’s going on in our mind—the feelings of powerlessness or fear, the wish for acknowledgment or respect. So we use all sorts of ways that don’t work to try to remedy the situation, often making the problem worse. Even if it seems that we get what we want, in the process of doing that, we create tons of negative karma that propels us into a painful rebirth in the future.

The point is that we must be vigilant and be aware of what we’re feeling and thinking. We must have the courage to see what is going on inside of ourselves and to work with it. We need to be willing to identify and then oppose our own disturbing attitudes and negative emotions instead of simply blaming others for the difficulties in the world. As Buddhists, we shouldn’t fall back on Buddhist jargon to justify our actions.

Developing patience

Patience cannot be developed in isolation from other people. We can only cultivate it in relationship to others. Sometimes if our anger arises too strongly in a situation, we have to leave and separate ourselves from it. But we do this to calm our mind and develop our meditative abilities and patience so that we can go back into the situation and handle it in an effective way. We are not escaping from the situation or the person who bothers us. The real proof of our patience is when we are able to work out conflicts we have with others.

Genuine patience is developed only when we have gained some degree of control over our anger. That patience is an antidote that prevents anger from arising. In other words, we don’t wait for anger to apply patience. We are trying to familiarize our minds with a different way of looking at situations altogether, so that our habitual paradigm changes. Then, even if we start to fall back into our old ways of looking at things, we can catch ourselves quickly and reorient our minds to see the situation in a different, more realistic or beneficial light. Eventually our new perspective will become so strong that we won’t need to reorient the mind because it is already like that.

For example, when we are in a situation where we get angry or upset, we are usually seeing it through the viewpoint of I, me, my, and mine. We have to recognize that we are doing that and then train our mind to see the situation from the perspective of the other people involved in it. We can loosen our preconception that what is appearing to our mind is objective reality, and we can take in more information so that we understand what others are thinking and feeling and what their needs and concerns are. As we train our mind more and more in having a global viewpoint and looking at a situation from many perspectives, then this way of relating to things becomes less an antidote that we have to apply, and more just how we look at things. But in the beginning, when this isn’t how we naturally look at things, we have to deliberately cultivate that viewpoint. Why? Because we begin to see that our old way of looking at things is not accurate.

Here is where analytic meditation plays an important role in cultivating patience. There are many ways of handling anger. Some people say, “Just watch the mind. Acknowledge when anger is there and be mindful of the anger when it arises.” I know for myself that, at the beginning of my Dharma practice, doing that didn’t work. I was so locked into the story behind my anger that I had to realize that the story that I was telling myself was not reality. The story was how my mind was explaining the situation from the viewpoint of me, I, my, and mine. I had to realize that this was not objective reality. It’s an interpretation, and it’s wrong. Why is it wrong? Because it’s limited to how things appear to one sentient being in this planet, who just coincidentally happens to be me.

I need to constantly show myself that the viewpoint behind my anger is erroneous. I can’t just sit and watch the anger and let it go. As long as I’m locked into that story, I think I’m right and the other person is wrong, and the only way to stop the problem is for the other person to change.

This is where I personally find analytic meditation so helpful. With it, I can look at how I conceive the situation and show myself that it is erroneous. Once I do that, I can start to see the situation from a number of different viewpoints.

The Tibetan word zopa can be translated as “patience” or “tolerance.” If we translate it as tolerance and think of the English meaning, not the Buddhist meaning, of that word, then it sounds strange to say we should be tolerant of terrorists. In Buddhism, being tolerant or patient doesn’t mean saying negative actions are fine. It means we separate the action and the person, and while we may condemn the action, we don’t condemn the person because he has Buddha nature.

The word zopa can also mean to endure. The word “endure” in English is another tricky word, because it has the connotation of gritting our teeth and steeling ourselves to go through something we don’t like. That’s not the meaning of patience in Buddhism. We cultivate the ability to endure suffering and hardship not by gritting our teeth and having a stiff upper lip, but by letting go of our preconceptions that say this shouldn’t be happening and that life should happen according to my ideals and plans.

Patience is a letting go that gives space so that we can endure hardship and suffering and not be overwhelmed with misery when it occurs. If we grit our teeth and reluctantly endure something, sooner or later we will lash out because we’re unhappy. It’s similar to doing something nice out of obligation. We may do it and look good externally, but we won’t be able to keep it up because our heart isn’t in it. Rather, we want to develop the patience that is a genuine transformation from inside ourselves. We want to let go of our “rules of the universe”—our preconceptions that people should be a certain way and events should unfold according to our idea.

I have a good Dharma friend that I often talk to when I’m upset or angry. He generally responds, “What do you expect from samsara?” In other words, samsara or cyclic existence has the nature of suffering, so why do we expect that things should always turn out the way we want or the way we think they should? When we’re miserable or resentful because the world is not going according to our conception of how it should unfold, what are we expecting? If we don’t like cyclic existence, we should free ourselves from it instead of blaming everyone else for our problems. Cyclic existence depends on our uncontrolled mind, which is filled with ignorance, anger, attachment, and selfishness. If we want to be happy, we need to practice the Dharma and subdue our own mind. Why do we expect others to change if we don’t want to ourselves?

Zopa has the connotation of being able to endure difficulties. We can tolerate other people’s behavior and attitudes, without feeling that we have to correct everyone’s wrong ideas and inappropriate behavior. We can sit and listen to ideas that are different from ours, even if they concern our behavior, religion, or political ideas. We have some ability to tolerate differences, to tolerate other people’s behavior that we don’t agree with or feel threatened by.

Here tolerating their behavior doesn’t mean we say that their behavior is okay or that we don’t try to stop harm. It is completely legit to say, “This behavior is damaging. Such action is harmful.” If we can’t discriminate beneficial and harmful behavior, we get into a mental mush, thinking “There’s no good and no bad.” That leads us to ignore or undervalue the importance of ethical discipline. Although everything is empty on the ultimate level, conventionally we have to be able to discern constructive from destructive actions.

Saying that a certain action is destructive doesn’t mean we hate the person or tear them apart with our judgmental mind. We need to cultivate the discriminating wisdom that frees us from critically judging others, but is still able to discern what causes happiness and what causes suffering.

Patience with others’ destructive actions doesn’t mean we “forgive and forget.” Forgive, yes. Forget, no. Some things should not be forgotten. Remembering some things will help us not do them again. Still, remembering does not entail holding onto our pain or becoming bitter or judgmental. We remember so that we can learn from the situation, and we forgive at the same time.

In English, the word “patience” means the ability to wait, as in patiently waiting for a bus to arrive. The Tibetan word zopa includes being able to wait without getting agitated and upset. But it means much more. Patience is a calmness, a mental stability that gives us the courage to be able to face situations without fear, hurt, anger, or panic. Anger arises when we can’t accept and face a situation. We don’t want what happened to have happened, so we are angry. It happened already, whether we wanted it to have happened or not. We need to accept it. Again, this does not mean saying it’s okay, saying it doesn’t matter. But the acceptance of that event as a reality enables us to deal with the situation instead of skirting around it and falling into depression, passivity, or vengeful retaliation. Patience makes our mind stable and courageous, because we can actually accept and face a situation for what it is.

Getting back to work

Regarding the events of last week, I felt a shift yesterday, the first Monday after the tragedy. On Sunday the president said America’s a great nation and therefore we’re all going to go back to work Monday morning. But I wasn’t ready to go back to work yet. I needed more time to process what had happened. At the same time, I did need to start doing some other things. My instant reaction when I heard the president say this was, “Are you telling me to stop grieving? Are you telling me not to feel sad when I feel sad? Are you telling me to pretend this didn’t happen and to go back to the way I felt about the world on September 10th?” Does “get back to work as usual” mean that we block September 11th out of our mind and we return to the bubble of American impermeability, thinking we are the richest country, the only superpower? Does “get back to normal” mean resume the fantasies we have about ourselves, even though these fantasies have been shattered? Are we supposed to deny something happened?

I was of two minds. One felt: I can’t shut this out. It happened. My life is not going to be the same. The world as we knew it has changed. The other asked: Am I going to stay in the feelings I had last week—feelings of lack of control, fear of the terrorists, and fear of our government and what it’s going to do? Am I going to stay in that kind of state in order to not block out its reality and pretend it doesn’t exist? I can’t stay in that state of grief forever, but I can’t block it out either. I didn’t want to go to either of the two extremes of blocking out the event or dwelling in the grief and fear. I wondered how to look at this.

Today I was reading some teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and came across a key to bringing balance to the situation. I thought: Yes, our lives have been irrevocably changed. I have to look at the situation that happened and acknowledge impermanence and lack of control. I must acknowledge what the event has meant to me so far. But at the same time, I have to have the mental stability that can hold the tragedy, grief, and fear and go forward in life. His Holiness quoted Shantideva’s verse, “As long as space endures and as long as sentient beings remain, so too may I abide to dispel the misery of the world.” I thought, that’s it! This verse means that a bodhisattva is able to face everything without either staying stuck in confused emotions or blocking out reality. We face what happened—that is, accept it in our gut—but our purpose in life remains clear, strong, and stable, and we go forward.

Now, we can have some discussion on this and other points.

Question and answer session

Audience: When my twelve-year-old nephew died, I watched my brother and his wife struggle with acknowledging his death and seeing how things had changed, and not wanting to get stuck in their grief. They’re having a hard time with that. Most people around them want them to be back on track, but they aren’t completely ready to. They need a lot of compassion and understanding.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes, it’s very hard. When something occurs that wasn’t part of our version of how the universe should be, how do we recover from it? Do you block it out and pretend your child didn’t die, or do you cry every morning? Neither of these will get you anywhere. You need to get to the space of being able to say, “It happened. I accept it. There’s something valuable for me to learn from this situation to be able to go forward in my life with meaning, purpose, and kindness.” This takes a lot of internal work. Knowing the Dharma helps tremendously.

Audience: In the last week, I saw myself grieving out of honor, as if it were my duty to grieve because the country had been attacked. Then I realized I was being rather selfish, wallowing in the grief without deriving any positive lessons from it.

VTC: You’re saying that you thought you should feel a certain way and got stuck in that? There are different kinds of grieving. In one kind, we spin around and get stuck in our loss. Sometimes we feel that this is what we should do if we grieve. But in fact, grief is the natural process of acknowledging that a change has happened and adapting to that change. Unhealthy grief is being filled with sorrow and getting stuck there. Healthy grief is the process of adjusting to a major change. With this grief, we re-evaluate things and adjust to new circumstances. This opens a space so we don’t get stuck in the sadness, guilt, anger, or other emotions.

Audience: I interpreted the president’s advice to get back to work to mean, “We’re not going to be paralyzed by the fear of what might happen. We’re not going to remain shocked that this happened, because it has.”

I’ve been saying the bodhisattva prayer “For as long as space endures…” for a long time. Now I’m realizing that I haven’t really understood it well. I have a lot of respect for His Holiness and the Tibetan people and what they have been through. In spite of what His Holiness has experienced, he still recites this prayer.

In comparison, I’ve had a very privileged life and have thought that the meaning of that prayer was fairly easy. But after September 11, I have an intense sadness regarding cyclic existence. And now, I have a hard time saying that prayer. I don’t know how I can wish to stay around all this pain and suffering for eons in order to benefit others. I’m having a lot of doubts.

VTC: I think that shows that the Dharma is sinking in and that you’re making a big step forward in your practice. Dharma practice can seem easy at the beginning. The ideals of Buddhism are so wonderful and we feel so inspired to say prayers and make aspirations. But at some point when we begin to really think about what the prayers and aspirations mean, we come up against the reality of the situation. We begin to see what our own mind is like at present, and we begin to understand the depth of change that must occur for us to even begin to actualize the meaning of our aspirations. At that point, the prayers are not just nice, beautiful ideals. They become something to practice. Then, you’re right, saying those prayers becomes harder because we know we are making a commitment. When Dharma begins to challenge our comfort level, that’s when some practice is happening.

I had to face something similar in myself. Before all of this started, I was scheduled to go to Israel. Just a couple of weeks ago, I made the decision not to go because of the terrorism and danger there. Some of my Israeli students were not very happy, and I believe they saw me as a bit of a coward. They didn’t think that my concern for personal safety was a good enough reason for not going. They live there, that’s their reality, and they couldn’t figure out why I was hesitant to go.

In The Guru Puja, there’s a verse about the far-reaching attitude of effort. It says, “Even if we must remain for an ocean of eons in the fiery hells even for the sake of one sentient being, inspire us to complete the perfection of joyous effort to strive with compassion for supreme enlightenment and not to be discouraged.” I say this verse every morning and feel, “Sure, I’m willing to go to the hell realm for the benefit of one sentient being. I can build up my courage to do that.” Then I had to face that I couldn’t even go to Israel for the benefit of a group of people. I have to accept where I’m at. I say this verse every morning and I’m nowhere close. In fact, forget going to the hell realm for one sentient being, forget going to Israel for many sentient beings. I don’t want to endure even stubbing my toe. I don’t want to go through hardship for myself, even. It’s hard to say the bodhisattva aspirational prayers when we really think about what they mean.

Having to face this in myself has happened many times in my practice, so I’ve come to realize that when it becomes hard to say a prayer that means I’m taking the Dharma more seriously, I’m understanding it more deeply. It means that I’m beginning to get more of an inkling of what a verse means.

Generating bodhicitta is incredibly difficult. We come into the Dharma and hear the bodhicitta teachings. We do the meditations, and they are so wonderful; we feel so uplifted. “I have love for everybody; this really is possible.”

Then we hear His Holiness say that, in his late twenties and early thirties, he meditated a lot on emptiness. He began to feel like he was getting a handle on it. But whenever he thought of bodhicitta, he thought, “How in the world can I practice this?” We think, “What a funny thing to say. Bodhicitta is so wonderful and is so easy to understand. But emptiness! That’s hard … non-affirming negation, the negated object, inference and valid cognizers, and the four philosophical systems. Who understands that? But bodhicitta is easy. Why does His Holiness say it’s the other way around?”

That’s how we feel at the beginning of our practice. Once we begin to get a teeny inkling of what bodhicitta means, then we can see why His Holiness said, “I have some understanding of emptiness, but can I practice bodhicitta? It’s wonderful and it’s marvelous but can I do that?!”

Just getting to the point where we ourselves ask that question indicates that we’ve taken a step. At the beginning, we say, “I don’t want to keep hearing teachings on bodhicitta. That’s easy. I want to hear Mahamudra and Dzogchen! I want to hear completion stage of Tantra! I’m ready for that. Bodhicitta, love, compassion, they’re a cinch!”

Some Westerners are eager to take bodhisattva and tantric vows, but they don’t even want to take the five precepts. Stop killing, stealing, unwise sexual behavior, lying, and intoxicants. We think, “I don’t want to stop doing those things! But bodhisattva vows, tantric vows, I can handle those, no problem.”

That shows we haven’t understood very much, doesn’t it? When we get to the point where the five precepts seem like a big challenge, that’s when we really are beginning to practice the Dharma. Stop lying!? That’s not so easy to do, let alone stop the four others.

What I’m getting at is, when the things that you thought were easy to recite or easy to do become difficult, it means you are making progress.

Audience: I have a question about being pacifist. Today I read some things online about non-violence and the reaction to terrorism by one of Gandhi’s relatives, who runs a center in Memphis. I’m wondering: If we aren’t going to be passive but are non-violent and practice compassion, how do we say that what happened is wrong?

VTC: I think we can quite clearly say, “This is a harmful action.” Having compassion for someone doesn’t mean thinking that everything he does is fine. We have compassion for them because their minds are uncontrolled. We intervene to try to correct or to help in a situation in order to protect everyone involved. We want to protect the victims from experiencing suffering now and the perpetrators from experiencing suffering later because they have created negative karma.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean being passive. It’s important to reveal where terrorist cells are and to stop people from harming themselves and others. We can imprison such people without having the motivation to punish them.

However, I think that bombing an impoverished country like Afghanistan makes us look foolish. Forget Dharma; just be practical. Throwing our weight around makes us look foolish and ineffective. It doesn’t do anything but feed the image that America is a big bully. It makes the terrorists see us as more of an enemy and may sway moderate people to see us as such as well. And, if we don’t succeed militarily—like Vietnam, Afghanistan is not a familiar or easy territory on which to conduct a war—America will look more foolish.

Compassion involves deeply looking into the situation. For example, brushing people off as religious fanatics is too simplistic. How does somebody get to the point of misconstruing their own religion? What is going on in their minds and lives that they do this?

Compassion also means we ask how our behavior contributed to their perception of America. What are we doing that is invoking this kind of perception of and reaction to us? This is an opportunity to start looking at ourselves and others more deeply. We need to correct those things in our own society, in our own heart, and in our own foreign policy.

Audience: I tried to explain to someone at work that massive bombing isn’t the way. They said, “We can’t just roll over. If we do, the terrorists will start to do even worse actions.” I think they hatch other plots anyway.

VTC: We’re not advocating rolling over. We want a measured, thoughtful response. People are angry now and just want to strike out. We want people to think of an effective response.

You may remember I told you about one of the prisoners asking me, “What can I do when someone is in my face, deliberately provoking me?” I said, “If you get upset and slug him, you’re playing into his trip. That’s what he wants you to do.”

Audience: I’ve been thinking that we’ve been very self-focused. Why don’t we have the same kind of media coverage for the horrible things happening in other parts of the world? If we heard stories of individual tragedies and heroism elsewhere, maybe we could respond to the rest of the world with the same outpouring of care and generosity that we are having for other Americans right now.

VTC: Think about the earthquakes in Turkey and Armenia. We could see people sobbing, but we couldn’t understand their language. When we hear people speaking in English with an accent that is our own, then what they’re experiencing hits us much stronger because they seem more like us. We know how we would feel in such a circumstance.

Also, the media coverage here is much better than in Turkey and Armenia. It does lead to a certain amount of self-focus. In one way, it can be good because we can take this and recognize, “Look how much we hurt when this happens! Others hurt to the same extent when they experience tragedy. Let’s do more to extend a generous hand to them when they’re hurting.” That can be good; it can wake us up a lot. But if we just get stuck in our own self-focus, then we are doing more of the same.

Audience: I read that article by Saddam Hussein in the newspaper in which he said, “Now you might understand what it’s like to see my cities decimated.” That shook up my idea about what a monster he is. From his side, he’s experienced what we are experiencing.

Audience: I read an article by a Canadian in the paper. He said that he was tired of the US getting the bad rap and we are in there to rescue the other countries and they end up not appreciating it. I think the US goes in and helps war-torn people more than any other country.

VTC: We have a responsibility to help because we have more ability and more wealth. But, we also help to create the wars because we are the biggest seller of military weapons. What if we exported as much to repair war-torn countries as we do to give them the weapons to destroy each other? Our country can be extremely generous when we want, but we can also be very ignorant.

Let’s dedicate the positive potential we’ve created this evening specifically for peace in our world, among people, and within each individual.

Due to this merit may we soon
Attain the enlightened state of guru-Buddha
That we may be able to liberate
All sentient beings from their suffering.

May the precious bodhi mind
Not yet born arise and grow
May that born have no decline
But increase forevermore.

Read Venerable Thubten Chodron’s personal response to her friends on September 11.

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.