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Honestly looking at our afflictions

Honestly looking at our afflictions

Part of a series of short Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks in response to a letter from a German student concerned about the growth of the Muslim community in Germany and the fear he often feels as a result.

  • The importance of honesty when examining our thoughts and feelings
  • Generalizing groups of people based on a few examples is dangerous to our practice
  • We must be careful in our relationship with the media

Honestly looking at our afflictions (download)

Part 1

Part 2

Sometimes on these Bodhisattva Breakfast Corner talks I bring up questions that people have emailed me or difficulties that people have that they’ve asked about. So I just recently got an email. As it happens, it’s from somebody who’s in Germany but the situation he’s describing is also happening in the U.S. and it’s the same kind of attitude as people in the U.S. So I would just like to read this. And I really appreciate his honesty in sharing this ugly side, you know, because lots of times when we have a lot of fear and anger and suspicion and prejudice, we like to pretend we don’t have it, and then of course, it’s still there and affects us. But he sees it as a problem, and so I really admire the fact that he’s discussing it.

An honest letter from a student

Okay, so, he says: “I’ve been a Buddhist for 15 years, and I’m also leading a small Buddhist group here.” But he’s living in an area of Berlin where about 90% of the people are Muslim. And so he said: “I find my mind is often very uncomfortable with this, because I know when they see German girls with short dresses, they say, ‘these girls are bitches’ and so on. And they build a lot of mosques here where they pray against the people who don’t believe in Allah.” And so therefore, he said: “I bought a Koran, thinking that if I read something of what their beliefs are then my fears will go away, but to the opposite, I found passages in the Koran that speak of violence and so on, and so now my mind is really stirred up about the whole thing.” And he said: “Yesterday I heard in the news that the Taliban killed some doctors who went to Afghanistan to help visually impaired people.”

So this happened just a couple of days ago. Some workers from a Christian group who were—one man had lived there for I don’t know many decades helping people who were visually impaired and there’s a woman who was a doctor—anyway, they were ambushed. And I think ten, was it ten people killed? Or four people? Ten were killed. So it was a really ugly, unfortunate thing.

So he said: “This makes me angry, and sometimes I feel that hate is arising, and I know from the Abhidharma that hate comes from fear, but what can I do? And I’m very afraid that in 20 years the freedom of speech and the freedom to practice our religion will die because the Muslims are having four to eight children and the Germans are having 1.3 children. And now all the young German kids are starting to speak like the Turkish boys, and you know, they want to kind of act like them, and they think it’s kind of cool and fun to do that. And so, instead of the Turks being integrated with the Germans, the Germans are being integrated with the Turks.” So then he went on, and he said: “Someone told me if we have tolerance for their intolerance, then intolerance will be the winner. But if we are intolerant against their intolerance, then tolerance will be the winner. But to be intolerant is normally not my way, because I want to go the way of the Buddha. But sometimes I find this hard.” And he was reading in Lama Zopa’s book: “And Rinpoche said that ‘your ego is more dangerous than Osama Bin Laden,’ and that helped me for a while, but when I see all the women with covered heads, then I can’t remember this. But sometimes when I see the women wearing veils and so on, I try and think they are Vajrayogini and that Vajrayogini is checking if I’m practicing patience, and that helped me for a short time, but after a while, that didn’t help either. So I try to overcome my bad feelings against the Muslims, and I know this is the job I have to do in this life. So please, can you give me some methods to release me from this suffering of being angry with them? I think this is my biggest hindrance on the path to bodhichitta.”

Intense letter, isn’t it? Yes? And that’s why I said I was very appreciative with how honest he was about those kinds of thoughts, because so often when we have those kinds of thoughts, we don’t want to admit them to anybody, at least not if we’re good Buddhists, you know. We like to be good Buddhists, you know, but inside that stuff could be going on, and unless we really admit that we’re thinking like that, then there’s very little to be able to do about it.

Prejudice and bodhicitta

So I think we might talk about this subject for a few days. There’s a lot to say about it, and like I said, the same kind of thing is happening in the States where people are taking a group of people who call themselves Muslims, but who actually misunderstand their own religion, and think that they know all of Islam. Okay? So it would be similar to people taking the Buddhists who do horrible things. It would be similar to taking Pol Pot—is that how you say his name? The guy in Cambodia. Pol Pot? And all of his people in the Killing Fields and saying they’re Buddhist, therefore all Buddhists are going to come in our country and they’re going to kill us and do the Killing Fields all over again. You know? So this whole thing that we have when we have a negative experience with one person and then generalizing that to a whole category of people and how incredibly dangerous that is. It’s dangerous for us in terms of our practice, and he clearly sees that, you know, “My biggest hindrance to developing bodhicitta.” Because if you leave even one sentient being out to your bodhicitta—let alone millions of human beings—then there’s no way, you know, if you leave one out of your love and compassion let alone millions, there’s no way to generate bodhicitta, so your own path gets completely stuck. You know?

So you can’t have prejudice, you know, and hate against a group of people and have bodhicitta at the same time in your mind. And bodhicitta isn’t just for some people. It has to be for everybody equally. So it’s a big problem for our own practice, these kinds of thoughts. And, needless to say, it’s a big problem in society in general, because these kinds of ways of thinking. If somebody like him weren’t aware that this is a problem, you know, would repeat it to other people and infect other people with this kind of poisonous way of thinking. And you can see that’s what’s happened to him, that other people, and especially the media, have said different things and infected his mind with that kind of fear.

Fear and the media

So, like I said, we’ll be talking about this over a series of days. But one thing I think is important is to realize is that in the West the media is designed to stir up fear. The media no longer reports. The media is—what do they call it? Infotainment? So just as movies, you know, they have to have so many horrible things happen every so often so that you, even physically, the adrenalin starts pumping and you get worked up so that you stay hooked to the movie, you know, with either sex or violence, one of the two, they have to get you worked up. So now the news has become similar. And so if you can hook people in with making them afraid, then they come back, they’re involved, they listen to the news, and they buy more of the things that are advertised between the news spots.

How we relate to the media

So I think we have to be incredibly conscientious about how we relate to the media. I think this is one really essential thing, because if we see the media as objective reporting, then when we hear these kinds of things, we believe them. Or even if an article—I was reading something in The New York Times, and they were talking about, you know, because at Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center was, you know, some blocks away from that there’s some people who want to build an Islamic community center, and some people are just totally stirred up about this and say it’s a monument to terrorism and blah, blah, blah. The media reports that, you know, then there’s another article about how people in some city in California, they don’t want a mosque to be, you know, built there, and so you hear, you read about these things and then you think, “Oh, if all these people believe this, then there must be something to it.” You know? Because we are so affected by what other people believe and we so desperately want to fit in with what we think is normal that our mind just takes in all this fear-mongering of the media.

So, I think one thing is to be very aware that that is what’s going on, and to really keep our distance from a lot of the media, and when we do read it, to be aware that they’re deliberately trying to make us afraid, because that’s what sells, unfortunately. Yes, so I think that’s one thing, so that we don’t let this information, this talk, in as objective information.

Practicing the Dharma

So, that’s all I’ll say today and then we’ll keep on going in future days. And I’m hoping that in the break time people discuss it some more, because this kind of thing relates so directly to our Buddhist practice. You know, we can go on—know all the categories of this and that—but if when these kinds of things come up our mind completely goes into fear and hatred, what kind of Dharma are we practicing? What’s happening in our spiritual practice? It isn’t. Okay? So these kinds of things pertain directly to us personally. We’re not just talking about this man. We’re talking about us, because I don’t know about you, I still have the seeds of fear and hatred and anger and prejudice in myself, you know? And until those seeds are eliminated—which is path of seeing, which I’m nowhere close to—until that happens, I’ve got to be careful of these things. And the moment I think, “Oh, but I practice love and compassion and emptiness, I don’t have such a problem,” then that’s the time when something completely comes out of left field and takes over your mind. So, you know, he is talking about us. We are him, and we have to do the same kind of introspection on ourselves.

So we’ll be talking about this for the next few days.

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.