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Buddhism in modern society

Buddhism in modern society

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Extracted from The Path To Happiness by Venerable Thubten Chodron

Graffiti image of a Buddha's face.

We are extraordinarily fortunate to have wonderful opportunities to learn and practice the Dharma. (Photo by el mac and retna and luna park)

We are extraordinarily fortunate to have the circumstances for Dharma practice that are presently available to us. In both 1993 and 1994, I went to Mainland China on a pilgrimage and visited many temples there. Seeing the situation of Buddhism there made me appreciate the fortune we have here.

However, we often take our freedom, material prosperity, spiritual masters and the Buddha’s teachings for granted and do not see the wonderful opportunity that we have to practice. For example, we take for granted our ability to gather together to learn the Dharma. But this is not the case in many places. For example, when I was on a pilgrimage at Jiu Hua Shan, Kshitigarbha’s Holy Mountain, the abbess of a nunnery asked me to give a talk to the pilgrims there. But my friends from Shanghai who were traveling with me said, “No, you can’t do that. The police will come and all of us will get in trouble.” We had to be careful about even an innocent activity like teaching the Dharma. Only when the abbess said that she was a friend of the police did my friends say it was safe for me to teach.

Appreciating our advantageous circumstances

It is important that we reflect on the advantages and good circumstances that we have to practice right now. Otherwise, we will take them for granted and they will go to waste. We tend to select one or two small problems in our life, emphasize them, and blow them out of proportion. Then we think, “I can’t be happy. I can’t practice the Dharma,” and this thought itself prevents us from enjoying our life and making it meaningful. We human beings are very funny: when something bad happens in our lives we say, “Why me? Why is this happening to me?” But when we wake up every morning and are alive and healthy and our family is well, we never say, “Why me? Why am I so fortunate?”

Not only should we open our eyes to all the things that are going right in our lives, but also we should recognize that they are results of our own previously-created positive actions or karma. It is helpful to think, “Whoever I was in a previous life, I did a lot of positive actions which make it possible for me to have so many good circumstances now. So in this life I should also act constructively by being ethical and kind so that in the future such fortune will continue.”

Appreciating our problems

Appreciating our advantageous circumstances is important as is appreciating our problems. Why appreciate our problems? Because the difficult situations in our lives are the ones that make us grow the most. Take a minute and think about a difficult time in your life, a time when you had a lot of problems. Didn’t you learn something valuable from that experience? You wouldn’t be the person you are now without having gone through those difficulties. We may have gone through a painful time in our life, but we came out the other side with stronger inner resources and a better understanding of life. Seen in this way, even our problems enable us to become better people and aid us on the path to enlightenment.

Before we take refuge in the Three Jewels—the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha—it is helpful to visualize them in the space in front of us. That is, we imagine the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and arhats in a pure land. We are there too, surrounded by all sentient beings. A pure land is a place where all the circumstances are conducive to practicing the Dharma. When I visualized being in a pure land, I used to imagine only the people I liked and left out the people with whom I felt uncomfortable, threatened, insecure, or fearful. It was nice to imagine being in a place where everything was very pleasant and it was easy to practice the Dharma.

But one time when I was visualizing the pure land, all the people who were giving me problems were there too! I recognized that if a pure land is a place conducive for Dharma practice, then I also need the people who harm me to be there, because they help me to practice. In fact, sometimes those who harm us help us more to practice the Dharma than those who help us. The people who help us, give us gifts, and tell us how wonderful, talented, and intelligent we are often cause us to get puffed up. On the other hand, the people who harm us show us very clearly how much resentment and jealousy we have and how attached we are to our reputations. They help us to see our attachments and aversions and they point out the things we need to work on in ourselves. Sometimes they help us even more than our teachers do in this respect.

For example, our Dharma teachers tell us, “Try to forgive other people, try not to be angry. Jealousy and pride are defilements, so try not to follow them because they will cause you and others difficulties.” We say, “Yes, yes, that’s true. But I don’t have those negative qualities. But the people who harm me are very resentful, jealous, and attached!” Even though our Dharma teachers point out our faults to us, we still don’t see them. But when people with whom we don’t get along point out our faults to us, we have to look at them. We can’t run away anymore. When we’re outrageously angry or burning with jealousy or attachment is eating away at us, we can’t deny that we have these negative emotions. Of course, we try to say that it’s the other person’s fault, that we have these horrible emotions only because they made us have them. But after we’ve listened to the Buddha’s teachings, this rationale doesn’t work any more. We know in our hearts that our happiness and suffering come from our own mind. Then, even though we try to blame our difficulties on other people, we know we can’t. We are forced to look at them ourselves. And when we do, we also see that they are incredible opportunities to grow and learn.

The bodhisattvas, who sincerely wish to practice the Dharma, want to have problems. They want people to criticize them. They want their reputation to get ruined. Why? They see problems as wonderful opportunities to practice. Atisha, a great bodhisattva in India, helped to spread Buddhism to Tibet in the 11th century. When he went to Tibet, he took his Indian cook with him. This cook was very disagreeable, speaking harshly and being rude and obnoxious to people. He even regularly insulted Atisha. The Tibetans asked, “Why did you bring this person with you? We can cook for you. You don’t need him!” But Atisha said, “I do need him. I need him to practice patience.”

So when someone criticizes me I think, “He is an incarnation of Atisha’s cook.” One time I was living in a Dharma center and had big problems with one person there, let’s call him Sam. I was so happy when I left that place to go back to the monastery and see my spiritual master. My master knew of my difficulties and asked me, “Who is kinder to you: the Buddha, or Sam?” I immediately replied, “Of course the Buddha is kinder to me!” My teacher looked disappointed and proceeded to tell me that Sam was actually much kinder to me than the Buddha! Why? Because I couldn’t possibly practice patience with the Buddha. I had to practice with Sam, and without practicing patience there was no way I could become a Buddha, so I actually needed Sam! Of course, that wasn’t what I wanted my teacher to say! I wanted him to say, “Oh, I understand, Sam is a horrible person. He was so mean to you, you poor thing.” I wanted sympathy, but my teacher didn’t give it to me. This made me wake up and realize that difficult situations are beneficial because they force me to practice and find my inner strength. All of us are going to have problems in our lives. This is the nature of cyclic existence. Remembering this can help us to transform our problems into the path to enlightenment.

Dharma practice in modern society

This is an important aspect of Buddhism in modern society. Dharma practice isn’t just coming to the temple; it’s not simply reading a Buddhist scripture or chanting the Buddha’s name. Practice is how we live our lives, how we live with our family, how we work together with our colleagues, how we relate to the other people in the country and on the planet. We need to bring the Buddha’s teachings on loving-kindness into our workplace, into our family, even into the grocery store and the gym. We do this not by handing out leaflets on a street corner, but by practicing and living the Dharma ourselves. When we do, automatically we will have a positive influence on the people around us. For example, you teach your children loving-kindness, forgiveness, and patience not only by telling them, but by showing it in your own behavior. If you tell your children one thing, but act in the opposite way, they are going to follow what we do, not what we say.

Teaching children by example

If we’re not careful, it is easy to teach our children to hate and never to forgive when others harm them. Look at the situation in the former Yugoslavia: it is a good example of how, both in the family and in the schools, adults taught children to hate. When those children grew up, they taught their children to hate. Generation after generation, this went on, and look what happened. There is so much suffering there; it’s very sad. Sometimes you may teach children to hate another part of the family. Maybe your grandparents quarreled with their brothers and sisters, and since then the different sides of the family didn’t speak to each other. Something happened years before you were born—you don’t even know what the event was—but because of it, you’re not supposed to speak to certain relatives. Then you teach that to your children and grandchildren. They learn that the solution to quarreling with someone is never to speak to them again. Is that going to help them to be happy and kind people? You should think deeply about this and make sure you teach your children only what is valuable.

This is why it’s so important that you exemplify in your behavior what you want your children to learn. When you find resentment, anger, grudges, or belligerence in your heart, you have to work on those, not only for your own inner peace but so you don’t teach your children to have those harmful emotions. Because you love your children, try to also love yourself as well. Loving yourself and wanting yourself to be happy means you develop a kind heart for the benefit of everybody in the family.

Bringing loving-kindness to the schools

We need to bring loving-kindness not only into the family but also into the schools. Before I became a nun, I was a schoolteacher, so I have especially strong feelings about this. The most important thing for children to learn is not a lot of information, but how to be kind human beings and how to resolve their conflicts with others in a constructive way. Parents and teachers put a lot of time and money into teaching children science, arithmetic, literature, geography, geology, and computers. But do we ever spend any time teaching them how to be kind? Do we have any courses in kindness? Do we teach kids how to work with their own negative emotions and how to resolve conflicts with others? I think this is much more important than the academic subjects. Why? Children may know a lot, but if they grow up to be unkind, resentful, or greedy adults, their lives will not be happy.

Parents want their children to have a good future and thus think their children need to make a lot of money. They teach their children academic and technical skills so that they can get a good job and make lots of money—as if money were the cause of happiness. But when people are on their deathbed, you never hear anybody wishfully say, “I should have spent more time in the office. I should have made more money.” When people have regrets about how they lived their life, usually they regret not communicating better with other people, not being kinder, not letting the people that they care about know that they care. If you want your kids to have a good future don’t teach them just how to make money, but how to live a healthy life, how to be a happy person, how to contribute to society in a productive way.

Teaching children to share with others

As parents you have to model this. Let’s say your children come home and say, “Mom and Dad, I want designer jeans, I want new rollerblades, I want this and I want that because all the other kids have it.” You say to your children, “Those things won’t make you happy. You don’t need them. It won’t make you happy to keep up with the Lees.” But then you go out and buy all the things that everybody else has, even though your house is already filled with things you don’t use. In this case, what you are saying and what you are doing are contradictory. You tell your children to share with other children, you don’t give things to charities for the poor and needy. Look at the homes in this country: they are filled with things we don’t use but can’t give away. Why not? We’re afraid that if we give something away we might need it in the future. We find it difficult to share our things, but we teach children that they should share. A simple way to teach your children generosity is to give away all the things you haven’t used in the last year. If all four seasons have gone by and we haven’t used something, we probably won’t use it the next year either. There are many people who are poor and can use those things, and it would help ourselves, our children, and the other people if we gave those things away.

Another way to teach your children kindness is to not buy everything that you want. Instead, save the money and give it to a charity or to somebody who is in need. You can show your children through your own example that accumulating more and more material things doesn’t bring happiness, and that it’s more important to share with others.

Teaching children about the environment and recycling

Along this line, we need to teach children about the environment and recycling. Taking care of the environment that we share with other living beings is part of the practice of loving-kindness. If we destroy the environment, we harm others. For example, if we use a lot of disposable things and don’t recycle them but just throw them away, what are we giving to future generations? They will inherit from us bigger garbage dumps. I’m very happy to see more people reusing and recycling things. It is an important part of our Buddhist practice and an activity that temples and Dharma centers should take the lead in.

The Buddha did not comment directly on many things in our modern society—such as recycling—because those things didn’t exist at his time. But he talked about principles that we can apply to our present situations. These principles can guide us in deciding how to act in many new situations that didn’t exist 2,500 years ago.

New addictions in the modern society

However, the Buddha did talk directly about intoxicants and discouraged us from using them. At the time of the Buddha, the chief intoxicant was alcohol. However, extrapolating on the principle he set down, the advice against intoxicants also refers to using recreational drugs or misusing tranquilizers. If we take this a step further, we have to observe our relationship to the biggest intoxicant in our society: television. As a society, we are addicted to TV. For example, after getting home from work, we’re tired and want to relax. What do we do? We sit down, turn on the TV, and space out for hours, until we finally fall asleep in front of it. Our precious human life, with its potential to become a fully enlightened Buddha, gets wasted in front of the TV! Sometimes certain TV programs are far worse intoxicants than alcohol and drugs, for example, programs with a lot of violence. By the time a child is 15 years old, he or she has seen thousands of people die on the television. We’re intoxicating our children with a violent view of life. Parents need to select the TV programs they watch with a lot of care, and in that way be an example to their children.

Another big intoxicant is shopping. You may be surprised to hear this, but some psychologists are now researching addiction to shopping. When some people feel depressed, they drink or use drugs. Other people go to the shopping center and buy something. It’s the same mechanism: we avoid looking at our problems and deal with our uncomfortable emotions by external means. Some people are compulsive shoppers. Even when they don’t need anything, they go to the mall and just look around. Then buy something, but return home still feeling empty inside.

We also intoxicate ourselves by eating too much or eating too little. In other words, we handle our uncomfortable emotions by using food. I often joke that in America the Three Jewels of Refuge are the TV, the shopping center, and the refrigerator! That’s where we turn when we need help! But these objects of refuge don’t bring us happiness and in fact make us more confused. If we can turn our mind to the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha, we’ll be a lot happier in the long run. Even in this moment, our spiritual practice can help us. For example, when we are tired or stressed out, we can relax our mind by chanting the Buddha’s name or by bowing to the Buddha. While doing this, we imagine the Buddha in front of us and think that much radiant and peaceful light streams from the Buddha into us. This light fills our entire body-mind and makes us very relaxed and at ease. After doing this for a few minutes, we feel refreshed. This is much cheaper and easier than taking refuge in the TV, shopping mall, and refrigerator. Try it!!

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.