Seeing the kindness of our parents
The 7-point cause and effect method of generating bodhicitta
A series of commentaries on Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun by Nam-kha Pel, a disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa, given between September 2008 and July 2010.
- Importance of familiarizing our mind with bodhicitta
- Generating a long-term motivation
- The role of kindness in generating bodhicitta
- The preliminary practice of equanimity
MTRS 21: 7-point cause and effect (download)
Good evening everyone. Let’s begin with our motivation. And really having a sense of the rarity of this opportunity to hear the Dharma teachings because it’s rare to have a human rebirth and among all the human rebirths it’s even more rare to have a precious human rebirth, and among the precious human rebirths, it’s difficult to always carve out the time and so we have the time, we have the leisure, we have the fortunes to be able to listen to the Dharma. So it’s very important that we really make good use of this opportunity, because samsara exists every single moment.
We’re always caught in the prison of samsara, but it especially becomes noticeable at the time of death, when that big change occurs. And so if we don’t spend our lives familiarizing ourselves with bodhicitta and wisdom realizing reality, then at the time of death it’s going to be a bit chaotic, because we’re separating from everything that we’re familiar with including our own body and our ego identity and our mind. So the personality seems to be dissolving into nothing, because there wasn’t anything there to begin with. So if we’re well skilled in the Dharma at this time when everything is dissolving, we’ll remember emptiness and relax. But if we’re not well skilled in the Dharma, then the mind craves, and grasps, and clings, and essentially freaks out. So if we have compassion for ourselves, we want ourselves to die well and have a good rebirth and so we practice for that reason; and if we look around and we see all the other beings who are just like us wanting happiness and not [wanting] suffering, and we have compassion for them, then we practice, in order to become fully enlightened Buddhas—whereby we’ll have the skill and wisdom and compassion to best and most efficiently be able to benefit all beings.
Let’s generate that long-term motivation, that long-term vision, as we make very clear our motivation for listening to teachings this evening.
Reviewing notes and practicing what we hear
So before we begin I want to greet all the people who are doing the retreat from afar. And let you know that your pictures are in our meditation hall and we remember you when we go in the hall. And we hope that you remember us too and that you are doing the practice daily. We’ve received letters from people who are doing it, and particularly from some of the inmates because we have about 50—60 [participating inmates] and some of them have written really nice letters, saying how much they’ve benefited from the teachings and the practice. So it’s very heartening to hear that.
So it’s a wonderful opportunity and like I said it’s a precious opportunity; we shouldn’t take it for granted, because once we die it’s gone. And we don’t know where we’re going to be reborn and in what kind of situation and what kind of opportunities we’re going to have. So this is not the time to have the mañana mentality of, “I’ll practice mañana a la mañana,” No! Today! Now!
So we had a short question. Oh! One other thing I wanted to remind people of is, it’s important to review your notes. Don’t just come to teachings, take notes, and then forget about it, and [then] when you do your Dharma studies read a book. Because there’s something quite special when you have oral teachings and really try and review the notes, and contemplate the notes and put them into practice.
The role of kindness
Okay, so somebody asked the question, “What role does kindness play in developing bodhicitta? It’s not listed as a virtuous mental factor, unless it’s considered a form of love, but it seems like it should be.” My idea on this is that love is the mental factor, wanting others to have happiness and its cause, and of course compassion, wanting them to be free of suffering and its cause. And kindness is the behavior that we do that’s motivated by the love and compassion. But then again, there are eighty four thousand mental factors, so maybe one of them is named kindness and I don’t know about it. But anyway, kindness is something that’s preliminary to bodhicitta. We have to develop kindness and then from there we will develop bodhicitta and then once we’ve gained bodhicitta, then our kindness is amplified.
Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun: stages for training the mind
Okay, so we’ll continue in the book. So, this first part here is giving an outline and it came across a bit funny but I’ll read it, just so we’ll have the transmission. The stages for training the mind are explained in two sections:
The Actual Training in the Conventional Awakening Mind
The Five Precepts That are Factors of the Training
So those are two headings. Then the first heading, the actual training deals with:
- The conventional awakening mind, concerned with the welfare of others, which is explained by the means of the teaching on exchanging yourself and others and the ways to cultivate the mind that are actually concerned with the interest of others, and
- The awakening mind concerned with attaining the fully awakened state of being.
So if we’re going to put this in the outline, here we’re dealing with one of the major points in the teachings, which is the actual technique for cultivating bodhicitta.
The first point under that is called:
Instructions for actually training in the conventional bodhicitta
This has two principal subdivisions:
- The process of cultivating the awakening mind that is concerned with the welfare of others,
- The process of cultivating the awakening mind concerned with attaining the fully awakened state of being.
Definition of bodhicitta
Now, when you look at those two major outlines, does it ring any bells; where do you see those two things?
Audience: Conventional and ultimate bodhicitta?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): No, it’s not conventional and ultimate bodhicitta. We’re just talking about conventional bodhicitta here.
Audience: The definition of bodhicitta
VTC: Yes, the definition of bodhicitta, because it’s a primary mind with two mental factors. One of the mental factors which actually is a cause of bodhicitta, it’s not at the same time bodhicitta, is the mind that is concerned with the welfare of others. And then, the mental factor that’s together with the bodhicitta is the mind concerned with attaining the fully awakened state of being. So, because we have the mind that cares about the welfare of others, therefore we generate the bodhicitta which wants to attain enlightenment.
So the object of the bodhicitta is enlightenment; it’s not sentient beings; it’s enlightenment. But the cause of bodhicitta, one of the things that comes before it, is that aspiration to benefit sentient beings. And the object of that aspiration, of course, is sentient beings who are suffering. And a cause of that aspiration to benefit sentient beings is great compassion, and the object of the great compassion is sentient beings who are undergoing suffering. Okay, you got it?
So if we take the first part of that:
The process of cultivating the awakening mind that is concerned with the welfare of others;
that has two subdivisions: The first one is:
exchanging yourself with others through acknowledging the faults of self-centeredness and the advantages of concern for others.
And the second sub-point is:
actually cultivating the awakening mind that is concerned with the interest of others.
But, before we get into those two sub-points which also have sub-points, what do you notice is not included here?
Audience: Seven-point instruction …
VTC: Yes, the way of generating bodhicitta that is the seven-point instruction of cause and effect. So, this text is going directly to the method of equalizing and exchanging self and others, which is Shantideva’s method, and it’s not talking about the seven points of cause and effect. But I think it’s valuable to talk about those. So we’re going to press the pause button on the outline and talk about the seven-point instruction of cause and effect.
Now, the seven-point instruction has a preliminary practice to it that’s not counted as one of the seven points. That preliminary practice is called equanimity. What equanimity means in this context (because the word “equanimity” comes in different contexts in Buddhism and it doesn’t mean the same thing in the different contexts) but in this context, what it means is a balanced mind that is free of attachment to friends, aversion to enemies and apathy to everybody else. Okay? That’s the meaning of equanimity here. Don’t get this confused with equanimity which is one of the mental factors in serenity meditation; it’s not that. And don’t get it confused with equanimity which is a neutral feeling, because it’s not that one either. So it’s a balanced mind that’s free of attachment, aversion, and apathy regarding other sentient beings. This form of equanimity isn’t including our own welfare so much; whose welfare is more important self and others? That comes in the equalizing meditation which is involved in the technique of equalizing and exchanging self for others. So equanimity here simply has to do with our feelings about other sentient beings.
But it’s an extremely powerful meditation because as we go through our day we can usually see how unequal we are feeling towards people. And this lack of equanimity is the source of a lot of our yo-yo mind. On a day-to-day basis how our mind goes up and down, and up and down, and up and down. Well, a lot of it has to do with lacking this particular equanimity which is directed at other sentient beings. Why? Because when we lack this equanimity, then when we see somebody we like, somebody we’re attached to, the mind gets up. When we see somebody we don’t like, somebody who has harmed us, then our mind goes down. So, since all the time in the day we’re encountering different sentient beings, then our mind just goes up and down all the time, in a very exhausting way, doesn’t it? “I like, I don’t like, I like, I don’t like!”
The judgmental mind
Now, it’s very interesting when we examine where this discrimination comes from. And a lot of people tell me that they have a lot of trouble with the judgmental mind. (No, you don’t have trouble with it? Oh! Very good! [laughter] Oh! You do have trouble with it?) The judgmental mind is the mind that lacks equanimity. That judgmental mind, it evaluates everybody we encounter in terms of ourselves. It’s extremely self-referenced. I mean, we go through the whole day and everything we experience is self-referenced. If you look it’s just horrific. Everything is referenced to how it affects me. And here, in the equanimity meditation, we’re talking about specifically other sentient beings and how we regard them in a self-referenced way. And because we regard them in that way, we become very judgmental of them. Because the self is the most important thing; then anybody who appears, I judge and evaluate in terms of how they affect me because I happen to be the center of the universe. So everything gets judged through that. Somebody praises me, “Very good.” Somebody criticizes me, “Very bad.” Somebody points out my good qualities, “Very good.” They point out my bad qualities, “Very bad.” Somebody gives me a present, that’s good. Somebody steals my stuff, that’s bad. Somebody tells me I look nice, that’s good. Somebody tells me I look bad, that’s bad. So, all the time, everything; oh, somebody looked at me and smiled, that’s good. Oh, they walked past me without saying anything, that’s bad.
Every small thing that happens throughout the day with another sentient being is completely self referenced and evaluated in terms of me. Whether that other person pays attention to anybody else in the world, we don’t care, unless it happens to be somebody else that we are attached to or somebody else we don’t like. And if they pay attention to somebody we’re attached to, they are good. And if they pay attention to somebody we don’t like; they’re bad. But, you see that also is totally self-referenced. So somebody talks to me, “Oh they’re wonderful!” Somebody doesn’t talk to me; they’re bad. Somebody compliments me; they’re good. Somebody doesn’t complement me, but they compliment somebody else; that’s bad. Somebody likes what I cook; that’s good. Somebody doesn’t like what I cook; that’s bad. Somebody likes how I vacuum the rug; that’s good. Somebody doesn’t like how I vacuum the rug; that’s bad. And so we’re reacting to other people’s judgments of us, and then, similarly, we’re judging them in the same way. “Oh, they vacuum the floor very well. Oh, they don’t vacuum the floor very well. Oh, they washed the dish very well. Oh they didn’t wash the dish.” All the time, isn’t it? Everything! And so, constantly judging people and placing them in reference to ourselves.
I was in a workshop once where they had us draw our family dynamics and who is close to who in the family and who relates to who, to draw it out in a diagram. It was very interesting. But what’s even very interesting is to take your family not in terms of how they relate to each other but in terms of how they relate to you. Or take your friends and how everything relates to me: who is close, who is not close, and how did they get close, how did they get distant, how do we treat people who we like, how do we treat people who we don’t like. Because if somebody is not nice to us, we punish them, don’t we? You don’t pay enough attention to me so I’m not paying any attention to you, huh! Except we are not that rude, are we? We just ignore them! Ignore them! We don’t go neahhh! in their face; we’re much too polite. But we just don’t say anything to them.
Everything is self-referenced
So all day long up and down, up and down; we’re judging and discriminating everybody else. They’re judging and discriminating us. And then of course all these situations are changing all the time, aren’t they? Yes, because whoever is nice to you today isn’t necessarily the person who is nice to you tomorrow or the person who was nice to you yesterday. And the person who wasn’t nice to you yesterday, isn’t necessarily the person who is not nice to you today. They might be very nice to you today. But however anybody acts to me today, at this very moment, is their value as a human being. We have very short-term memories, unless we are really holding a grudge. They always use the example in teachings; you have two people. So today this one gives you $1,000 and this one insults you, so who is your friend? Well, it’s clear: the $1,000 one. Who is your enemy? The one who insults you. But then tomorrow, this person insults you and that person gives you $1,000. So what happens, we change everything. Then the day after that, this person is back to giving us a present, that one is back to harming us. So then, this one is a friend and that one is an enemy, and the day after that this one’s nice to us and that one harms us, so then friend and enemy completely change again; always self-referenced and whatever somebody happens to be at any particular moment that’s who they are “forever.” And of course when it changes then, you know, it changes. But that’s who they are “forever” in the next moment.
Now, if we look at this it’s completely berzerky isn’t it? I mean, we think of ourselves as rational sentient beings but this kind of behavior is totally irrational, is totally crazy. Because if we look at it from the viewpoint of, this one gives me money and insults me and this one gives me money and insults me, therefore they’re no different, are they, in the big picture? So, why do we favor one and not favor the other, depending on who is giving us the present and who is insulting us which day? It’s crazy, isn’t it? Totally nuts! And if you look at it from the perspective of why am I evaluating everybody in terms of how they relate to me? I mean, that’s even nuttier because there are so many infinite number of sentient beings, and we don’t judge anybody on how they relate to other sentient beings. We only think of how they relate to me; if they agree with my ideas, if they don’t agree with my ideas, if they belong to my political party, if they don’t belong to my political party, if they’re the people who put the glasses right side up in the cupboard or if they’re the people who put the glasses up side down in the cupboard, if they’re the people who put the silverware in the dishwasher with the points of the knives and the points of the forks sticking up or if they’re the people who put the knives and the forks in the dishwasher with the points sticking down, and if they’re the people who put the knives in the dishwasher to start with—because you’re not supposed to put sharp knives in the dishwasher, are you? [laughter] It ruins them. How dare they do that!
Who is the center of the universe, judging everyone?
So, I mean, we judge and discriminate like crazy. And so here we have a precious human life with the Buddha nature and the potential to become fully enlightened beings and what do we spend our mental energy on? I like this person, I don’t like that person, I like this person; I don’t like that person. When I was in 6th grade (and, for those of you who’ve ever been 6th grade girls, you know), we did something, but at least we were candid about it; every week we drew up a list of who we liked and who we didn’t like. And we had a line and whoever was our friend that week was at the top and our enemy was the bottom and then we ranked everybody. You agonized minute after minute, “Where do I put this person this week? Do I like this one better than that one, that one better than this one? Do I put it up? Do I put it down?” This was like incredibly, crucially important to figure out how you ranked everybody else in every single week. So you would look at it now like, “Sixth grade girls are too much!” But, you know what? As adult men and women we do the same thing. We don’t take out our little piece of paper and write their names on it, but in our mind we have it all worked out, who we like, who we don’t like. We have all our reasons why we like certain people and why we don’t like other people. We think it’s totally reasonable, totally rational, and it’s all based on the ultimate judge of goodness—me—who is the center of the universe. And we are intelligent, rational human beings. Pretty sad, isn’t it? Pretty sad.
Categorizing people by our preferences
So it’s just amazing how we do this. And that’s just in terms of looking at beings in terms of this life and our relationships. But if we consider that we’ve had relationships with everybody in previous lives, so the people who this life time more often than not go in the friend category; in a previous life, probably more often than not went in the enemy category. And the people who in this life go in the enemy category, probably in previous lives more often than not, went in the friend category. Constantly changing relationships, constantly changing; and yet we are so short-sighted and so unseeing that we think that whoever we perceive, whatever we perceive at this very moment is who that person is and what that relationship is. And then, another thing that’s really stupid is, everybody has faults and good qualities—if we’re not talking about the enlightened beings who only have good qualities. But the rest of us, everybody has some faults, everybody has some good qualities.
If people show their good qualities to us, they are friends; they’re good people, inherently good, ethical people. If they show their good qualities to somebody else and ignore us then they’re not so good, are they? If they show their love and their kindness and their generosity to other people and ignore me, they’re not very good: they’re rejecting me, they don’t think well of me, they’re so inconsiderate, they’re so self-centered—if they show their good qualities to somebody else. Now if they show their good qualities to somebody we’re attached to, then we cut them some slack. So if I’m attached to certain people and somebody else is nice to those people, then I like that person who’s nice to those people I’m attached to.
But if that person shows their good qualities and is nice to somebody who I don’t like, they still have those same good qualities, it’s just the object they’re showing their good qualities to is not me and not the people I like. Then what do I think of them? Somebody’s being nice to my enemies, the people I don’t like? Don’t like them at all! What a horrible disgusting person! But it’s the same good qualities, isn’t it? And it’s the same bad qualities. It’s just depending on who there are showing these good and bad qualities to. Somebody shows their bad qualities to me, if you’re irascible and short-tempered and critical and lazy and you show that to me, “Well, what a horrible person you are.” If you show that to somebody who I don’t like and you’re rude to somebody I who don’t like, “Good, good, you’re on my side. We’ll join together, hit that person together.” But it’s ridiculous isn’t it, because it’s the same good qualities no matter who they show them to and it’s the same bad qualities no matter who they show them to. But look at how we’re evaluating them depending on who they’re showing those qualities towards.
Judging people based on good and bad qualities
And this is the reason for so much divorce, because what happens when you fall in love is that the two people are showing their good qualities to each other. “I show my good qualities to you so you love me; you show your good qualities to me so I’ll love you.” That’s what we call “falling in love.” Now what happens after a while of staying with that person? Does that person always show their good qualities to you? No.
They start showing their bad qualities to you. They had those bad qualities all along; they just didn’t show them to you before, because they wanted to impress you so that you’d fall in love with them. And, being stupid, you did. And you did the same thing, you showed them all your good qualities because you wanted to impress them so they would fall in love with you, and they’re stupid so they did. But then after everything is signed, sealed, and delivered, then you do whatever you want: you’re rude and critical and whatever to that person, right? Because they’re so much part of you, that you can treat them anyway you want to. So when that starts happening in a relationship that’s what causes divorce, isn’t it? But the person had the same good and bad qualities all along. It’s not like they were only good and all of a sudden they turned out to be like that. They had the same qualities all along; it was just a fact of who they show those good qualities to. So that’s why having friends that we’re attached to and enemies that we can’t stand is really stupid and ridiculous and nonsensical and irrational. Because all these things are changing and the whole way we discriminate people is false.
More on equanimity
Now, somebody’s going to say, “Does that mean I’m detached from everybody? Because if I don’t have any attachment, then there’s nothing that’s going to draw me to anybody, so I’m just detached from everybody. I don’t love anybody; I don’t hate anybody; I just sit there. I don’t love anybody, I don’t hate anybody; I practice equanimity.” Is that what equanimity means? No! That’s another stupidagio. That is not the meaning of equanimity. Equanimity is equal open-hearted concern, so detachment doesn’t mean that you are putting everybody at arm’s length building a wall with razor wire between you and them. That’s not what equanimity means. Equanimity is not putting up walls between you and another person; it’s taking down the walls so we can have equal-hearted concern for everybody.
Then somebody’s going to ask, “Well, if I have equanimity, does mean I treat everybody the same? Because now the people I’m attached to I treat one way and the people who threaten me, I treat them another way. So if I don’t have attachment and anger, then does that mean I treat everybody the same way? If I have equanimity, I treat everybody the same way; there’s no difference? Is that what it means?” That’s not thinking; because we don’t treat everybody the same because we have different social roles. We have different ways of how well we know different people. So we have to treat people different based on the social roles, based on how well we know them, based on what’s good for them.
I read a book once that was saying that we should give people the amount of trust that they can bear. So different people can bear different amounts of trust, can’t they? Do you trust a two-year old with matches the same way you trust an adult with matches? So you give people different amounts of trust according to their level of maturity, according their understanding, and according to their relationship with you. You might trust somebody you know with the key to your house, whereas you wouldn’t trust somebody you didn’t know. You could still have the feeling of equanimity towards both those people, but you’re still smart and since you don’t know how much you can trust the stranger with the key to your house, you don’t give it to them. So we still behave differently with people according to the relationship.
Having equanimity doesn’t mean okay, everybody can come stay with me because I have equanimity. I mean, you’re going to go nuts! So there are still different ways of treating people and it’s not that you treat the kid next door in the same way as you treat your boss. There are different social roles and different levels of maturity of those sentient beings, so you have to treat them differently. But in your mind you can still have an equal feeling toward both of them, not being partial, thinking one person’s happiness is more important than another person’s happiness and not wishing well to one person and wishing harm to the other person.
So, you can see that the more we cultivate this equanimity, the more it frees us from attachment and it also frees us from malice. Because sometimes when our feelings are hurt then we have a kind of malicious attitude towards somebody, “May they suffer,” or “I’m going to punish them,” and so we do our little punishment routines.
How we punish people we don’t like
VTC: How do you punish people who you think aren’t being nice to you?
VTC: You ignore them? Do you ignore them in a special way? How do you ignore them? What kind of way. Yes a little snub so it’s a way of not paying attention to them that they can’t miss that you’re not paying attention to them. But you are actually paying very much attention to them because you’re focused single pointedly on snubbing them by not paying attention to them.
Audience: Then what I do to make that even more noticeable is that I accentuate how much attention I am paying to other people in front of them.
VTC: Yes, in front of them we accentuate how much attention we’re paying to other people, and then, just innocently, “Oh, I didn’t notice you, I’m sorry,” [laughter] but meanwhile paying so much attention to other people. What else do you do?
Looking at the bigger picture, past life connections to others
So, when you’re a little ticked off with somebody you ignore them. But you might just make a general statement that has a very particular reference that only you and they know that you’re hitting on them, except you can still look completely sweet and innocent, can’t you? Because if they come back and call you on it you can say, “I wasn’t talking about you!” So we kind of cover ourselves a lot. So you see how this lack of equanimity, this partiality we have, leads to so many complications in human relationships and so much disturbance in our own mind, as well as being completely irrational. Because if you look at the big picture: past lives, present lives, future lives, everybody has spent some time in the friend category, everybody has spent some time in the enemy category, so they are all exactly the same, everybody has spent some time in the neutral category, everybody is the same. But all these three categories are totally artificial because they’re based on self-reference, how they relate to me.
So if we start to tear down those categories of friend, enemy and stranger, then things really, really open up between us and other sentient beings. And they open up in a way whereby we really begin to feel close to others and this leads into the first of the seven points which is that all sentient beings have been our parents at one time or another. Or if we don’t even get to that first point, all sentient beings we’ve known in previous lives and they’ve been our friends, do it that way. So then when you see some sentient being in this life it’s not like you’re strangers just meeting. You’ve had some connection in a previous life. You don’t remember each other but there’s been some connection; so we don’t have to put everybody at arm’s length, like, “Oh, this is a total stranger. I don’t know who they are. We have no way of relating.” It’s not like that at all because we’ve all been extremely close to each other in previous lives.
Seven-point cause and effect
The first step, all beings have been our parents
So in the seven steps, you start with the first step, seeing that all sentient beings have been our parent, so we’ve had that very close relationship of parent and child. It usually says they’ve all been our mothers but we’re in the age of gender equality so I’m including all the dads. They’ve all also been our dads, so our mothers and our dads. And in being our parents then they’ve all been kind to us. That’s the second one. Back on the first one, just understanding that they’ve all been our parents necessitates some kind of feeling for rebirth, some kind of belief in rebirth, some kind of feeling in rebirth, just even playing around with the idea of rebirth. I think, one of the things that is an impediment for understanding rebirth is our grasping at true existence. Because we see somebody now, we grasp them as being however they appear now and we think that’s all they ever have been and all they ever will be and that’s that person: those aggregates that we see now is that person. So you can see how the grasping at true existence sets up a block for understanding rebirth. Whereas if we don’t identify the person’s aggregates, mental and physical aggregates, as the person inherently, then we see that the aggregates can change; or there can be a continuity of aggregates and a continuity of the person as well, the person being merely labeled in dependence on the aggregates.
The second step, seeing their kindness
The first step was seeing them as having been our parents and thus very close. And then the second step is thinking of their kindness when they were our parents. I remember when I first learned this, sitting on the flea-infested mats at Kopan in 1975. A lot of us were saying, “Lama, you don’t understand our families. Don’t tell us our parents were kind. They did this and they did that.” And ever since Freud came along, we have an open slate for blaming our parents for everything that’s wrong with us. So, we take advantage of it, don’t we? I’m screwed up because of what my parents did. We’ll build whole identities on this.
So Lama said, “OK, dear, if it’s too hard to think about the kindness of your mother and the kindness of your father, then think about whoever it was who brought you up when you were little, if it was an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent or a babysitter, think of whoever it was who was kind to you when you were little.” Some people even had problems with that. But I think a lot of this reflects more on us; that we often do not see the kindness of others. We are very, very ignorant and although Lama gave us permission to do this meditation thinking about the kindness of whoever it was who brought us up when we were kids, I think it is important to go back to our parents and to really appreciate their kindness. Because they were the ones who gave us this body and they did the best they could to bring us up, given the fact that they were imperfect human beings just like us. So everybody had their own craziness, but everybody wished well. If you look at it from the viewpoint of that person, it’s like they wish others well, but their own afflictions get the best of them sometimes. And so they act in really damaging ways, not because they’re awful human beings but because they’re overwhelmed by their own afflictions. So why hold a grudge against somebody who is in the control of the afflictions?
Shantideva uses this excellent example. He says if somebody beats you with a stick, it’s the stick that actually hurts you. But do you get mad at the stick? No, you get mad at the person because the person controls the stick. But who controls the person? The afflictions control that person, so we shouldn’t get mad at the person either, we should get mad at their afflictions, because it’s not the person who’s damaging. They don’t have any control. It’s their afflictions that have completely overwhelmed them, that are making them do whatever they’re doing.
The kindness we received as small children
So I think it’s quite important to really spend some time thinking about the kindness we’ve received from others when we were very little, from our parents and from whomever else was kind to us when we were little. And I think there’s also an advantage of thinking about this particularly from the time when we were little because we were so helpless then. When we’re adults and we think about other peoples’ kindness, of course we still appreciate it, but there’s always this thing of, “Well if they were not kind to me, I would have found somebody else who was kind to me or would have found some other way to get the thing accomplished.” But when we were little as infants? No, we were totally, completely 100% dependent on others. We couldn’t feed ourselves, we couldn’t clean ourselves. We couldn’t even roll over in bed. If we were too hot we couldn’t take the blanket off; if we were too cold we couldn’t put the blanket on. We couldn’t put a glass to our mouth and drink water. We couldn’t do anything when we were infants. I really think one day we should pull out our baby pictures and sit around and just think about that and imagine each other as helpless babies, because we were, weren’t we? We were totally helpless. If we were sick, we didn’t know anything about medicine. All we knew is we didn’t feel well and somebody else took care of us. It’s really quite amazing, if you spend some time thinking about being an infant and imagining yourself like that.
We are alive due to others’ kindness
And watch how parents treat their infants and then think, “Yes, that’s how my parents took care of me.” And of course, our parents had their own struggles. It wasn’t like life was totally rosy when they had us. They had their own struggles, their own insecurities. They had financial problems, they had relationship problems; they had all sorts of problems and yet they still took care of us or if they couldn’t take care of us directly, they made sure somebody else took care of us, didn’t they? If they couldn’t take care of us for whatever reason, they made sure a relative or a foster parent or an adopted parent or a friend or somebody took care of us, an older sibling, somebody took care of us. Why? Because we’re still alive; that’s the proof. What is the proof that we’ve received kindness from other sentient beings? The proof is we are still alive. Because the fact is that if we had not received kindness, because we couldn’t take care of ourselves as infants, as toddlers, we would have died. We totally would have died, but we didn’t. And the whole reason we’re still alive is because people took care of us because we couldn’t take care of ourselves. So this whole American thing of swashbuckling, independent, stick your chin out, stick your chest out, in control person; it’s a bunch of hogwash, isn’t it? We were all little babies, who couldn’t take care of ourselves and other people took care of us.
So we were the recipients of a tremendous amount of kindness and it wasn’t like taking care of us was all the other people had to do in the whole wide world. They had so many other things to do besides take care of us and yet they always found time to take care of us, especially at 2:00 in the morning when we were screaming our lungs out. Somebody always got up and took care of us. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? We should try that sometime, you know, somebody in here, like Achala (the cat) going around at 2:00 in the morning going around meowing and waking everybody up. How do we feel? We don’t like it, but our parents when we’re babies? We would shriek in the middle of the night and somebody would come and pick us up and hold us and feed us. We had a nightmare and they would comfort us. Or when we were learning to walk we would fall down and they would pick us up.
And how did we learn to speak? Because they used to hold us and show us how to move our mouths to make the sound and it’s amazing how parents understand their kids’ baby talk. Have you ever been with some kid who was talking to you, fluently from the side of the kid, but you can’t understand what they’re saying? The parents can! They completely understand the baby talk makes total sense. I have that sometimes in Singapore because they speak Singlish [Singapore English] and sometimes the Singlish accent in the little kids is very very strong and so I’m listening but the kids are talking very quickly and I can’t get it all. But the parents? They totally understand. So that’s how we learn to talk because our parents listened and then they repeated back to us what we were trying to say, that we couldn’t say very well, but they repeated it back. We would go, “bwoow,” and they would go, “look.” That’s how we learned to talk, isn’t it? They would repeat back to us, what we were trying to say and in that way they taught us to speak. They toilet trained us, they taught us how to brush our teeth, how to tie our shoelaces, how to wash dishes, how to do so many things, they taught us. As adults we may or may not tie our shoe laces or wash the dishes, but somebody taught us how to do them.
So we learned a lot from all these people. So I think it’s very good to spend some time thinking about the kindness of people who raised you from the time you were very, very little and who really gave us these basic skills and who kept us alive when we were totally helpless.
Meditate on these kindnesses
So we’ll continue next week with this, but it’s a very sweet meditation and it’s something that can be quite emotional when we really let ourselves feel the kindness that others have shown us, especially when we’ve been building walls to differentiate ourselves from our parents and show them that we’re grown ups and we’re not under their control and we’re not going to do what they say, to really spend some time thinking of their kindness completely melts all that stuff we so often do with people.
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.