Changing our mind

By M. P.

Young man looking threatening.
It helps to place the other above us so we keep our conceit and ego from rearing up in the middle of an unstable situation. (Photo by thebarrowboy)

The day after tomorrow is a “Precepts Day.” This is a day in which the Buddha encouraged us to take the Eight Mahayana Precepts—to avoid killing, stealing, sexual behavior, lying, intoxicants, overeating, distracting activities—and so forth. I look forward to it. I like knowing that the universes are filled with an ocean of similarly minded beings all kneeling down taking precepts together on those special days when we reaffirm our commitment to live with our vows, to uphold an ethical way of life. We are all elbow-to-elbow on those mornings before the sun slips over the eastern horizon, sending its long red fingers throughout the calm sky.

We have all made commitments to ourselves before. Some that we have upheld, and some we haven’t. There was never any long-term penalty for us when we failed, once we got past the momentary disgust or disappointment with ourselves. Maybe there was a surfacing of guilt here and there, from time to time; but nothing we couldn’t swallow back into that dark oblivion of ourselves.

Sometimes we made commitments to others as well—our parents, our friends, our lovers or spouse. We never kept all of those either, and there was less disappointment and guilt because, after all, they are “out there.” They aren’t a part of us. They aren’t in our head screaming at us. We can walk away. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.

I felt I was doing a pretty good job of living ethically, recently I mean, since establishing a living link with a qualified Buddhist teacher. I’m even going to go so far as to say I felt I was doing better than average in avoiding ethical downfalls. My commitment to living cleanly, mindfully, as a child of the Buddha, was (and is) very important to me. There is no other refuge for me other than the Triple Gem—the Buddha, his teachings (Dharma), and the community of practitioners (Sangha).

Something happens when we participate in the precepts ceremony with a Preceptor, someone living properly in their ordination. The commitment we make is not just to ourselves, but also to this kind, generous, compassionate preceptor, to the unbroken lineage, to all the Buddhas of the past, present and future. It is also a commitment to the Buddha we shall become when the delusions and obstacles are removed and the dawn of our primordial awareness dawns on that ultimate morning.

If we fail to observe our vows, precepts, commitments, we aren’t just letting ourselves down, we are letting down everyone. The feeling for me is very profound and tangible. I love and respect my preceptor, as a living incarnation, a living representative of the entire lineage. As the teachings are read: this lama, guru, teacher is even more precious, more loving than Shakyamuni Buddha, because this teacher is physically present in my (your) physical and mental continuum; kindly bent to ease our suffering, compassionately poised to administer the ultimate medicine, the stainless nectar, so that we may heal.

Now, every moment of every day, the entire refuge field is with me; above the crown of my head, or above and in front of me, or above my right shoulder (as I walk), or in the drop at my heart center. There is not one day or night when we are not together. Consequently there is no time day or night when I am free to let my guard down, slacken my resolve, relinquish my moral ethical conduct. It is said we should guard our morality as we guard our eyes. A long, unbroken stream of ethical conduct generates tremendous positive potential. One moment of anger, or some other self-indulgent behavior that harms others, erases this merit and reinstates our guilt. Our sense of self-worth is lowered.

Then there came a year when I was provided with the opportunity to take part in a real precepts ceremony with a qualified preceptor. It was the five precepts (to avoid killing, stealing, unwise sexual behavior, lying, and taking intoxicants). Following that ceremony I was filled with a new strength in living ethically. Now it wasn’t only MY vow to MYSELF to live a certain way, refraining from doing these harmful things; it was a commitment I’d made in front of the assembled Buddhas, bodhisattvas and arya sangha, all assembled in the form of my teacher and preceptor. I wouldn’t just be letting myself down; I would be letting all of us down; and I’d be letting down all those suffering beings I would not be helping as swiftly if I continued to delay my own Buddhahood .

Now I’ve gone through the eight precepts ceremony with the same teacher/preceptor (the same five as above, plus

  1. not singing, dancing, playing music, or wearing perfumes, ornaments or cosmetics,
  2. not sitting on high or expensive seats or beds, and
  3. not eating after lunch.

This time I took the precepts orally in front of my kind teacher and the entire ocean of enlightened and suffering beings. The results of both my positive and negative actions will follow me like my own shadow on a bright, sunny summer day. Once negative habitual behavior is subdued though, we are able to begin to purify the future fruits of those actions, or so I believe. Now instead of continuing to backslide, and then have to purify these new actions; I can go to work on the wealth of historic negative actions I’ve performed in the past. Now I can work on purifying their effects on my mental continuum. I have a lot of work to do. May these positive actions I now embrace manifest as the causes of future benefit to others. May their positive results follow me as the shadow on a brilliant new day.

A new level of mindfulness

Living with these precepts does bring my mind to a new level of mindfulness. I am guarding my morality as I do my eyes in a sandstorm. I shall not harm my kind and gentle teacher by transgressing the vows which have been entrusted to me. I shall not prolong this process culminating in Buddhahood while so many suffer throughout the realms of cyclic existence.

The first precept is one of non-harm. It is the precept dealing with killing and harming. As an added point of mindfulness for me: since I’ve gotten into trouble with firearms on several occasions, I made the special vow not to even touch a firearm, a weapon, nor use any common item as though it were a weapon. It seems easy enough. Then we get into the midst of our everyday life and we are now mindful of ways that we “play” with weapons, or with things we use as weapons during the course of our play. The incident that finally broke through a deep layer of obstruction for me was one involving a rubber band. Several people nearby were having a rubber band fight; all in good fun. I was drawn into the action, because I’d always done it, since grade school. We don’t think of it as violence. We don’t think of it as weapons. We mix fun, sports, and violence in our society, our culture.

I picked up a rubber band and started to stretch it out, placing one end against the point of my ring finger, so I could shoot it at my friend. As I put my eye close, to sight down the line of fire, the rubber band snapped, hitting me in the eye, and on the soft eyelid. It hurt really bad! I hurt myself. I was immediately shocked into a new awareness.

I had just been using a common item as a weapon. I hadn’t even been aware of it. If I’d hit my friend with it, it would have probably hurt him. As it turned out, I hurt myself. I used a weapon and hurt someone! The whole thing sneaked right up on me. We are so habitually conditioned to accept violence and the use of weapons in our culture that we aren’t even aware of how often and in what ways it occurs. It was the wake-up call for me. Now I see other ways I’ve accepted violence or potentially harmful play. It’s how we’re raised in this country. It’s more than that though. If it were simply that easy to detect the source of this problem we could all feel like geniuses, but, to me, it seems WE have accustomed ourselves to this behavior over countless lifetimes, long before we arrived in this country.

So … it’s another morning in the prison system. We get up and walk over to the dining hall for the morning meal. We are surrounded by many other men. Some of them run ahead of us. Some of them cut into line ahead of us. Some of them bump into us and don’t notice; or they notice and then look at us as though WE were to blame and they feel like hitting us in the face. Naturally, if we aren’t mindful, we will become annoyed. We will feel that we are so important, that these men should behave as we do when walking to the chow hall. Everyone should have the same respect that we have for others. They just weren’t brought up right!

So how much respect do we really have for them? When we think these things about them, then we are putting them below us on the ladder of equality. We are placing ourselves above them. We are using the rationale that could perpetuate itself until we feel justified in telling them off, or in hitting them, or at least we will feel justified in thinking negative things about them. We may spout off to our buddy later about it. We may spout off to a guy in the line whom we don’t even know or normally talk with, because we feel insulted and we seek vindication.

There was no real harm done, was there? Who was harmed? We harm ourselves when we judge others’ behavior. We harm ourselves when we think negative thoughts. These thoughts are within our mindstream. They determine the very nature of our mindstream. The next moment in our mental continuum is determined by this present moment. So we initiate the potentiality of further negative thoughts and possibly even negative actions, if we’re so convinced in our superiority that we feel empowered to inflict punishment for this person’s infraction against us. After all, we ARE the judge and jury. We might as well admit that we are also the executioner.

We could maybe admit that we really can’t read minds either. We can’t see into all the minds of those racing around us. Maybe they are starving. Maybe they are having a diabetic emergency. They may need immediate sugar intake so that they don’t go into a diabetic trauma. Maybe they have an important appointment and if they don’t get to the chow hall quick enough, they won’t make it to a more important place on time. Maybe they have been raised in a country, or in a ghetto, or in a home where food was not a given commodity. Maybe they have insecurity about whether they will get the food they need. Maybe they are suffering in one of a million different ways people suffer within the compounded attachments to food. Have we considered even one of these possibilities? Or have we just let our self-centered anger compound our ignorance and attachment to self. Have we just shot ourselves full of the three poisons? Should we be mad at “them” (those people we always blame) or ourselves? I usually pick myself. It works out better that way.

I can work with myself. I know how to talk with myself. I am at the root of the problem and I speak the same language. I have my best interests at heart. Am I not the most logical person to start with?

Starting with ourselves

Crosby, Stills and Nash sang a song containing the words, “We can change the world rearrange the world … inside us!” That’s really where all the work gets done. The real work that we need to do in our lives is within us. The real battle and the real war will be won inside us.

Michael Jackson says we should “start with the man in the mirror.” Shouldn’t we start the work of healing, change, the work of world peace, inside us, with the person we see in the mirror when we are there all alone? We are at the center of all our problems, whether or not we admit to any wrongdoing. Whether or not we built the malfunctioning plane; when it begins to crash, we search OUR mind for solutions. So even if we can’t accept any responsibility for what’s happening to us in our life, we can and will at least look to our own mind for solutions.

In that we admit to having a somewhat imperfect, defiled, or limited conventional mind, we look to the perfected, undefiled, limitless awareness which is the ultimate source of refuge: the Triple Gem. We look into the teachings which help us deal with attachment, ignorance and anger, and we find ways that help. We try these things out in actual circumstances and they DO work. We develop confidence in the doctor, his medicine, and the nurses who administer that medicine to us. We also develop confidence in ourselves, as being capable of administering that medicine to ourselves. We may even begin to have confidence that this path of action will lead us to that perfected Buddha we have the potentiality to become.

I don’t claim to have any answers. I may be the last person to find the lifeboat, and even then I may lose it again, or I may lack the effort required to pull myself from the dangerous waters. Maybe as I talk to you, my eyes will clear and I will be able to see my own illness more clearly. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?

I know, and I’ve been told that sometimes when I write it seems I’m preaching. I see this too. Even if I couldn’t see it myself, I would know it’s valid because of the nature and quality of those who say it. But I DO see it as well. So I must write these words to you, explaining that I am NOT preaching, nor do I claim to know anything at all about anything.

A daily life situation

Another day has passed. I wasn’t able to finish this letter yesterday because another prisoner acquired this machine while I was over at the dining hall for lunch. Of course my first thought was, “Oh darn it, I wanted to finish this letter!” I asked the guy how long he would be and he said, “Thirty minutes.” I waited. I waited an hour. He continued to type. I asked him how much longer he would be and his response was mounted upon a face of displeasure. He felt that I was pressuring him for the machine. I didn’t think I was, but as soon as I saw his reaction to my question, I realized that it appeared that way to him, so I said I needed to go and it was okay. I could finish up what I needed to do tomorrow. Then he seemed to regret his demeanor towards me. He visibly softened and said, “Don’t go. I’ll be finished in five minutes.” I let him see that I wasn’t upset in any way, and I told him it was fine, really. I had another appointment rapidly approaching, and I could finish typing this tomorrow. He felt okay. I felt okay. I walked away.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have handled that situation as well. I would have been more self-centered. When I saw this man typing on a machine I plainly wanted, I would have been impatient. As he continued typing past his original estimated time of completion I would have gotten angry. I would have begun thinking about how he was junk and not the least bit concerned about my needs. He was hogging the typewriter even though he knew I needed it. Then I would have investigated what he was typing and decided it was less important than what I needed to type, which would have made me more upset with him. I would be showing it on my face by then. I’d probably say something rude to him, and he would get rude back. Then we would probably say even worse things, and if we didn’t resolve it then and there, we would forever after look at each other with disdain as we passed one another on the prison compound. Long afterwards we would probably say things to our prison friends about that jerk over there. We would tell them our version of what the other did that was so horrible, unforgivable.

Such things happen in our minds regardless of whether we are in prison or not. The present state of our heart and mind determines the quality of our experience and the quality of the experiences of those around us. When the airplane starts to go down we reach for the controls in our own ship. That’s the only thing that can make a difference. We don’t pin blame on every other airplane in the sky.

My own experience indicates that when I place my self above all others, my needs, interests and welfare above all others, then others are expendable. I don’t care what they feel or need. Not that it’s any different here in prison, but I notice where we are all crowded into a small, finite area, there are many opportunities for encounters. Every day we are constantly becoming involved in interactions with other human beings. We look around us and we see some of those interactions going well and others badly, sometimes to the point of personal injury and death. It happens in all towns. It’s just that this small town has no roads leading away from it, so we don’t need to read a newspaper to know what’s happening with everyone around us.

It seems when a person exhibits this attitude of, “I’m better than those around me,” or the tough-guy, hardened convict attitude of, “I don’t care if you live or die. Get out of my way,” we see bad interactions. A person doesn’t have to walk around begging to be victimized here. There are those who would victimize a person whom they knew would not fight back if attacked. Or if someone felt you were being uppity, disrespecting him or talking down to him, he would put you in your place, usually through a violent act. I have found through my own personal experience that the best way to avoid negative situations, is to avoid negative mental dispositions, including the negative mental assertion that others deserve less than we do because we are most important in the world. This self-centered attitude creates a lot of harm in our mindstream and in the mindstream of others. So I try to remain mindful throughout the day. I place others on equal footing with myself. When a problem arises with another person, I place them above me. These attitudes remove the potentiality for harm.

When a problem arises with another person, I treat him as I would like to be treated. I forgive others, as I forgive myself. When negative situations arise, regardless of whether they are big or small, I don’t judge and blame anyone and let it go. When the day is nearly completed, I sit quietly for awhile; and let go of any negative mental dispositions regarding myself or others. Then, I can go to sleep with a clean slate, without carrying anything over to the next day, other than the intent to do better.

When I place myself and others on an equal playing field, I am naturally less conceited and judgmental. I am less likely to take offense or react too quickly to any situation that arises. When we see that everyone around us is after the same exact things we are after, and that they are subject to the same feelings of suffering, and are deserving of all that we are, it’s hard to feel anything but compassion and acceptance for them. We feel connected to them, and are less likely to act or react in ways that will harm ourselves or others.

He is coming to me to feel better

If some unfortunate, potentially harmful situations DO occur, it helps to place the other above us. That way we are more likely to keep our conceit and ego from rearing up in the middle of an unstable situation when it will only compound the problem. I look sincerely into the eyes of the person in front of me. I see what they are feeling—anger, confusion, rage, helplessness, hurt, anguish. Even if I can’t tell exactly what they’re feeling, I still know they want to feel better. Right now they feel that the way for them to feel better is through interaction with you. Obviously they feel the nature of this interaction should hurt you, thus enabling them to feel better, vindicated.

I center on: This person is coming to me to feel better. I don’t focus on how he wants to feel better (through hurting me, or achieving verbal dominance). I don’t focus on what he wants to do to me. I look at the basic quality that motivates him, which is that they are unhappy and have come to me to feel better. He feels I am the key to their feeling better. Of course right now he feels this will be achieved through belittling or hurting me, possibly through killing me, but I don’t focus on that. I don’t need to be scared, offended, angry, or lofty at this point in time. I need to help this man realize his dream to feel better.

I can remain calm, clear-headed, and genuinely concerned for both of our welfares. Right now he is the one most likely to create harm, to me and himself because of the negative karma which will follow him. He may also receive more prison time, or a death penalty, or “hole-time” in segregation. He may hold guilt and negative feelings in his mind about what he’s done to you, once it’s done. So there is a lot of harm that can be avoided. By coming to you to resolve his unhappiness he has empowered you to empower him. At least this is how I look at it. I haven’t been stabbed or hit yet. I have a 100% success rate so far. The other person has always walked away feeling better, and perhaps more importantly, they haven’t done anything to create further suffering for me or themselves.

So, when they come up to us, and it’s obvious that they are feeling badly (they think it’s our fault of course), then we should try to remember that we have just been asked to help this person become happy again. From a Buddhist perspective we’ve been asked to help their suffering lessen. From my perspective this is a blessing. It’s an opportunity to practice and to test our skills in helping others. From my perspective this is an opportunity for me to repay some of the kindness I’ve received from others in many lifetimes. I may be returning a kindness to the very person who showed me this kindness in another life. If you don’t believe in rebirth, you can have these feelings in relation to this very lifetime. If we believe that positive actions generate positive results, we will understand that we have an opportunity to create the causes for good results to follow.

If we believe in cause and effect, or karma, or “what goes around comes around,” we have a good start towards eliminating or resolving negative situations involving other people. We know we are now experiencing the fruit of some negative previous action we committed in this or another lifetime, perhaps with this very person. If we remain mindful and compassionate, then we can resolve this karmic perpetuation. If we become angry or manifest our ignorance and don’t resolve this karma which has followed us to this present moment, it will not be resolved and will continue to manifest in our continuum.

When I am faced by a living being that wants to hurt me (which I know means, “wants to feel better”), I open my heart to him. I genuinely generate loving-kindness and compassion for him. I say to myself, “This person is suffering. He thinks I am responsible, or that he can feel better through doing something to me (which translates to “with” me, in my mind), so I will help him realize his wish. I will help him feel better. I won’t do anything to harm myself or him, but will try to show him that I have no desire for him to be unhappy, and if I am the cause for his unhappiness I will apologize and promise to be more mindful in the future.”

The person standing in front of you is your teacher. He presents you with the opportunity to create more suffering in the future or to create the causes for the cessation of suffering in your mindstream. This person standing in front of you is your pathway to the complete liberation of Buddhahood. This is a golden and unequaled opportunity. It would be a shame to waste it, as we have wasted so many in the past. No matter what you first think of that person and what they are saying, in that next instance remind yourself that they are a teacher and a golden opportunity for you. Take advantage of every person standing in front of you. Don’t be afraid or angry or disinterested. It may be your 15 minutes with the Buddha. It may be your single chance to make the self-liberating decision of your lifetime. Manifest compassion and peace. Truly have others’ best interests in your heart and let your heart guide the instrument of your intellect. If we do this, there will never be a bad situation in our life, only opportunities for practicing the path to happiness.

Incarcerated people

Many incarcerated people from all over the United States correspond with Venerable Thubten Chodron and monastics from Sravasti Abbey. They offer great insights into how they are applying the Dharma and striving to be of benefit to themselves and others in even the most difficult of situations.