Creating harmony with others

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Part of a series of talks given during the annual Young Adult Week program at Sravasti Abbey in 2006.

Dharma values: part two

  • Practice and training
  • Learning to give and receive support

Young adults 02: Values 02 (download)

Dharma values: part three

  • Rejoicing in others’ virtue and talents
  • Developing mindfulness, joyous effort, and humility in daily activities
  • Creating harmony with others through gratitude, respect, and forgiveness

Young adults 02: Values 03 (download)

Questions and answers

  • Initiations
  • Handling disagreements

Young adults 02: Q&A (download)

Excerpt: What about Buddhism?

You may wonder, “Why is she talking so much just about this abbey and how they live, etc; I want to hear something about Buddhism!” [Laughter] It’s because when one starts something like this, there’s the tendency to want to build an institution, and it’s easy for the goal of one’s actions to be to benefit the organization. So then the motivation becomes, “How can I make my institution or my organization bigger and stronger?”

A group of young adult retreatants in back of the abbey truck.

At the abbey, the goal is the living of the Dharma in our own hearts—the kinds of attitudes we want to cultivate living together.

But here at the abbey, great emphasis is placed on the principles by which we live because we’re not trying to create an institution for the sake of an institution—the world already has enough institutions. We’re trying to grow the Dharma principles in our own heart. It is necessary to have an institution to support that, but the actual goal is the living of the Dharma in our own hearts. That’s what’s important and so that’s why there’s so much talk about the kinds of attitudes we want to cultivate living together.

Excerpts: Practice and training

It’s important to remember that what we’re doing here is practicing. We’re training. When you hear the word “practice,” practice has the implication of doing something repeatedly. Practice has the implication that you’re not there yet. You’re familiarising yourself with something in order to—not suddenly, but gradually—get to where you’re going.

As for training, the military does a lot of training, don’t they? Well, over here, we’re developing the militia of love and compassion, and our enemy is the self-centered mind and the ego-grasping. We’re training the mind.

Training, again, implies repetition, familiarization, gradually developing one’s skills. That’s very important, and there’s no expectation that we’re all there already. We are where we are. We know where we’re going. We’re practicing and training over a period of time in an attempt to get ourselves there. But of course, it’s not a physical place we’re going to; it’s an internal place.

The fact that it’s a training has several ramifications:

We don’t criticize ourselves for not being there

One is that we don’t criticize ourselves for not being there, because we know that we’re starting from where we’re at and we’re in the process of going there. We don’t beat up on ourselves; we don’t get down on ourselves; we don’t sit there and go, “Everybody else is so far along the path; it’s only me who’s so distracted. Everybody else can get out of bed in the morning; it’s only me … [snoring sound]. Everybody else is so nice to people; it’s only me who slams doors and interrupts.” [Laughter]

We don’t guilt-trip ourselves, because we’re taking away the expectation that we’re perfect. And we accept the fact that we’re at where we’re at and we’re training.

We can be transparent with others

Since we accept that we’re not there yet, we can be okay being transparent with others. We don’t have to put on a mask and try and be some kind of super-practitioner who’s very together. We know that we’re not and we know everybody else knows that too. [Laughter]

You know our usual behavior—how we try and hide our faults, how we make up excuses and blame others and twist things around to make it look like, “Oh yes, I always have totally good intentions; I don’t have any faults.” We drop this kind of behavior for two reasons:

  • One is that we know we’re not there yet and we know everybody else knows we’re not there yet. So we’re not trying to impress anybody.
  • Another reason is that we trust the other people whom we live with to be compassionate and understanding of us when we admit that we’re not there yet.

We’re all working on this ability to be compassionate and tolerant with one another. Sometimes we’re not so good, but basically I think when somebody else is transparent with us and admits their mistakes, our reaction is usually one of understanding.

I think where things get built-up and very tense, is when we aren’t willing to admit our mistakes, and yet everybody else around us knows that we make them.

When we’re okay with our stuff and we trust other people and admit our stuff, then it creates a sense of ease within ourselves. It also creates a sense of ease within others and gives them the opportunity to be kind and compassionate to us.

When we’re very defensive, it’s very hard for other people to be compassionate to us.

It’s strange, isn’t it? When we’re defensive, what we want most is other people’s kindness, but our defensiveness actually pushes their kindness away. [Laughter] On the other hand, when we are transparent, admit our stuff and brace ourselves for their criticism, their response usually turns out to be one of compassion.

We’re not competing to see who gets enlightened first

We know and accept that we’re all in the process of training, and we try and support each other in that training. We’re not competing to see who gets enlightened first. Whoever gets enlightened first is going to have to come back and lead the rest of us there anyway.

So if others get enlightened before us, that’s even better. [Laughter]

We voluntarily chose to come here

The ten destructive actions to abandon, the five lay precepts that you’re keeping while you’re here, the in-house rules and guidelines for living at the abbey—these are all trainings that we voluntarily undertake. They’re not rules coming from the outside. It is not as if there is somebody saying, “You’ve got to do this,” thereby giving us something to rebel against and fight against.

We have to remember that we came here voluntarily. We knew what the guidelines and the rules are. We saw some sense and purpose in them. We knew before we came that the structure here is something beneficial for our own practice, and so we voluntarily chose to come. We voluntarily put ourselves in the situation because we know it’s something good for us.

Excerpt: Give and receive support

Being able to receive that support and give that support is very important for our own Dharma practice.

We need the support and we need to develop the mind that trusts others enough so that we can receive their support.

We need to give our support so that we come out of ourselves instead of getting locked in our little self-created traumas. We need to give our support so that we can benefit others and see that what we do does actually help.

Excerpt: Humility and willingness to accept instruction

Another thing that’s quite important, especially in a monastic context, is humility and willingess to accept instruction.

This is totally against our American upbringing.

Our country certainly isn’t humble, “We’re the one super-power and everybody has to do what we want them to do!”

We’re taught to sell ourselves

Even in our own life, we aren’t taught to be humble. What are we taught? We’re taught to sell ourselves.

Those of you who have gone through the process of applying for jobs, what do you do when you apply for jobs? You have to sell yourself and you have to make yourself look good. You have to hide everything you don’t do well and make it look like you’re very capable, “Even if I don’t know these few things here, I’m willing to learn them and I’m intelligent enough to learn them.”

That is what happens, isn’t it? We do that and we’re taught to do that.

If you look, when we start relationships with friends or even romantic relationships, what are we actually doing? We’re selling ourselves, aren’t we? “Here’s me. I am so good at this. I am so good at that. I am so wonderful. You should definitely fall in love with me!” I’m doing it in an exaggerated way, but this is kind of what we’re doing, isn’t it? [Laughter]

What is humility?

Humility isn’t putting ourselves down

In monastic practice, what we’re trying to cultivate is a sense of humility instead. Humility is different from low self-esteem. We’re not putting ourselves down. Don’t think that in order to be humble, you have to have low self-esteem and put yourself down, criticize yourself and all that kind of stuff. That’s not humility; that’s just regular old self-loathing that doesn’t have any productive quality at all.

Humility is the ability to be open and receptive

Humility is the ability to be open and receptive, not always having to be right, not always having to tell everybody what we think and what our opinion is, not feeling that we have to be King of the Mountain, so to speak.

Humility exemplified by the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation

Yesterday, after lunch, we chanted the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation. There’re a couple of un-American verses in there.

Seeing ourselves as the lowest of all

The first one is:

Whenever I am with others,
I will practice seeing myself as the lowest of all,
And from the very depth of my heart,
I will respectfully hold others as supreme.

Oh, my goodness! How can an American possibly think like that? [Laughter] Again, don’t misinterpret “lowest of all” as “I am worth nothing. I’m just crumbs on the carpet.” This is not what it means.

“Lowest of all” means we let go of the mind that says: “I have to be right. I have to be the center of attention, and I have to let everybody know how much I know.”

We do that sometimes. When we go into situations where we feel a little insecure, what do we do? We start telling everybody all the important people we know, what our experiences are, what we’ve studied, how much we know, and so on.

Therefore “seeing myself as the lowest of all” just means “I do not have to do that. Just relax.”

Accepting defeat and offering the victory to others

The other un-American verse:

When others, out of jealousy,
Mistreat me with abuse, slander and so on,
I will practice accepting defeat,
And offering the victory to them.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we put ourselves down. What it does is it gets rid of this feeling inside that we have to be the winner of any argument. You know how sometimes we get into a discussion and we feel, “I gotta prove my point. I am not going to let go, even if I’m wrong.” [Laughter]

This verse is telling us, “Relax!” [laughter] We don’t need to do this. Just relax. Do you remember the story that someone told yesterday about the bad relationship between a father and his daughter? The dynamics with her dad is such that when she says, “I’m right!” her dad will say, “No, I’m right!” They fought for thirty years like that.

But the moment she said, “I don’t have to win the fight,” and told her dad, “Whatever you want, Dad,” then the whole relationship changed.

This is what the verse is trying to tell us. We don’t need to have the last word on everything. And sometimes when we’re humble and let go of our view, it diffuses the situation and enables us to start a friendship with somebody instead of having a combative relationship.

Offering instruction and guidance to one another is emphasized in the Sangha system that the Buddha set up

In a monastic setting, humility and the willingness to accept instruction are especially important. The way the Buddha set up the Sangha is very much in this line, where juniors have certain responsibilities to their seniors, and seniors have certain responsibilities to their juniors. And peers have responsibility to each other. Offering instruction and guidance to one another is very important in the Sangha community.

It is especially important that the monastics who are new or junior are able to accept instruction and guidance from people who are more experienced than them.

Sometimes we become the rebellious teenager again

Sometimes our ego doesn’t like this. We become the rebellious teenager again, “Don’t tell me what to do!”

But in a training context, it’s very important to be able to accept instruction and guidance from our seniors, and to lessen the ego.

Ulric was telling us that when he was a temporary novice, the most difficult thing for him was having this monk screaming at him all the time and making him bow to him when he made a mistake. [Laughter]

Ways to cultivate humility in our mind

On one hand, that might seem a bit extreme. On the other hand, what it did is to cultivate within you the attitude of, “Okay, I have to learn and I have to accept that I’m not always right. I have to learn to be more careful. Things are done in a certain way for a certain reason. I spaced out and didn’t do that, and he’s reminding me that I need to be more careful.”

So it squashes our pride, which is very good for us. It’s painful, isn’t it? But like I was saying before, we deliberately choose to come into this situation. We know that our pride is going to get squashed. We also know that, by and large, it’s coming from a motivation of compassion from the side of the other person.

What good does it do that monk to have you bow to him? He doesn’t benefit. He wants to go do something else, but he has to stand still while you bow to him. He’s not doing that for his benefit. If we have that kind of awareness and trust, then it enables us to put our ego aside and accept instruction and admonishment. That’s so important in a community, and the Buddha has set it up for us to do that.

The vows require Sangha members to admonish and to accept admonishment

In my case, I create an infraction of my vows if I don’t talk about a wrongdoing of somebody else in certain situations. That doesn’t mean that you go around talking about everybody else’s mistakes all the time. But it does mean that if there is a situation where you can help somebody who is going through a difficult time by pointing out to them what they’re doing wrongly, then you need to do that.

Also, in many of the vows, if we do not accept our mistake after one or three admonishments, depending on which vow we’re referring to, then we have an infraction. These vows are not the root vows, but some of them belong to the next most important section of vows.

So it’s very much this attitude of being open and saying, “Okay, other people are trying to teach me something here.”

Sometimes we might get an admonishment from somebody who doesn’t know the whole situation and who gives us advice that doesn’t really fit the situation. We don’t need to get angry at that. We just need to realize, “Okay, this person only saw what I’m doing now. They don’t know everything that happened before, so they don’t understand why I’m doing what I’m doing right now.” You don’t have to get angry or bent out of shape; you can just explain to them. Hopefully they’re reasonable people and they’ll say, “Oh, okay, I understand now why you’re doing that.”

Depending on our attitude, living in a community can be bliss or hell

This willingness to accept instruction is very important, because if we go to some place with that attitude, then living in that place is bliss. When somebody points out our faults, our attitude is one of, “I really want to learn. This person is helping me and I’m happy about it.”

If we don’t have the mind that wants to learn, if we are so entrenched in our own ego and in getting our way, then living with others will be hell.

The basic thing about Dharma practice

So it all just depends on our attitude. That’s the basic thing about Dharma practice—to see that what we experience depends on our attitude towards it. That is why practicing the Dharma means to transform our own mind. It doesn’t mean to recite a lot of prayers and do all these things that look holy. It means working with what’s inside our own heart and transforming it.

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