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Verse 43: Bearing small ordeals

Verse 43: Bearing small ordeals

Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • We tend to fall into self-pity when things get difficult
  • At the same time we are trying to develop the aspiration to lead all sentient beings out of samsara
  • We need to increase our ability to bear physical suffering

Gems of Wisdom: Verse 43 (download)

What is the target of countless arrows of misery?
The temper of the mind unable to bear even small ordeals.

This is our self-pity mind, isn’t it? The complaining mind. The self-pity mind. The “I’m suffering and it’s not fair” mind. The “why does it happen to me? It doesn’t happen to others” mind. Yes? “This hurts so much and the world’s got to stop because I’m in pain and everybody should know that I’m hurting and this is just too painful, too inconvenient, too stressful….” Hmm?

But it’s true. We take what happens to us so seriously. Some small remark somebody makes it becomes a huge thing in our minds. Some small action somebody does or a look they give and our mind writes this incredible fantasy and we are suffering so much.

And then even when we do suffer from things that happen, we’re sick or whatever, again we put so much focus on me. “Nobody on this planet has ever hurt as much I do.” Yes? “There’s no way anybody could understand this.” And so we box ourselves in, we wall ourselves off, we don’t trust, we blame, and we complain.

One of the chapters in Taming the Mind is “My Favorite Pastime: Complaining.” I perfected that quite well. I couldn’t bowl very well. I couldn’t play tennis very well. So what did I do as a hobby? I complained. And just the way the complaining mind builds up a whole story about how “the universe is unfair, the world’s unfair. I don’t deserve this.” There’s no awareness of karma, that where did the principal cause for this suffering come from? My past deeds. What created the negative karma? My own self-centered mind, my own self-grasping ignorance.

Who is the real enemy in this situation? Self-centered mind, self-grasping ignorance. But the complaining mind doesn’t think like that. With the complaining mind it’s everybody else’s fault and I’m this innocent victim. And we can’t bear anything. The electricity is gone and, “Oh, it’s so hot, I can’t stand it!”

I mean, you should see it around here. Come to our morning stand-up meetings. “It’s so cold! We’ve got to close the windows, it’s freezing here.” And the person next to them is, “It’s so hot in the room I work in, I want to open the window!” [laughter] And then somebody else says, “The way we wash dishes is crazy.” And somebody else says, “But we’ve got to wash them that way, it’s not crazy!” And somebody else says, “Nobody’s vacuuming the floor on time.” “I’m too busy to vacuum the floor, why are you always asking me to vacuum the floor? There are all these other people here who can vacuum the floor too! You’re always picking on me!”

So yes, we can’t bear the slightest little thing.

I’m glad people are laughing.

Some of them are. Some of them aren’t. [laughter]

But just how we create our own misery and can’t bear anything. And then we come in the meditation hall and, “I’m going to be a bodhisattva and lead each and every sentient being to full awakening, alone, by myself.”

“No, maybe they should lead me to full awakening….” [laughter]

“I’m just sitting here miserable. [sniff]”

We generate this incredible, magnificent motivation on the one hand, and then in our daily life it’s like, “Oh, I’ve got the sniffles, I can’t meditate today.” Like, if you stay in your room you won’t have the sniffles? Or your stomach hurts, and if you stay in your room it’ll stop hurting? So, “I can’t meditate, but when I die I’m going to follow the stages of the death absorption into the clear light….” [laughter] Yes? “But today, impossible, because I stubbed my toe. Can’t concentrate. Got to go to bed early. If I sleep at least twelve hours, maybe fifteen, my little toe will feel better. And then I’ll be able to practice.”

[In response to audience] Not to identify with these things. It’s just like, “Okay, this is happening and life goes on.” Much to our surprise, these things really are not the end of the world. Although they seem so at the time.

In the practice of fortitude, which is a very important aspect of the bodhisattva’s path, we’ve got to increase our ability to bear physical suffering, to bear uncomfortable situations, uncomfortable emotions, distress…. Because if we’re going to benefit sentient beings in the long term, if every time something happens that we don’t like and we crumble, how are we going to benefit anybody?

Just slowly we have to really work on building our tolerance to these kinds of things and learn the antidotes. The taking and giving meditation is very good. Whenever there’s physical pain, and even mental—emotional—pain, taking and giving is really excellent. And the reflection on karma, very good. But we have to remember to do these meditations when that situation comes up.

Usually when the situation comes up our old habit is sit and pout and cry and suck our thumb or get mad at somebody. Or go drink. Go drink, go smoke dope. Go watch a movie. Something to medicate our own pain. And so instead of using those strategies—which definitely don’t work—to try and apply the Dharma antidotes. Starting with just small things that are inconvenient and then slowly building up our ability until one day we can be great bodhisattvas.

[In response to audience] Very good. So seeing that there are certain situations in your life, like your parents’ death, that if you don’t practice and make some preparation for now you’re going to crumble when they happen. And let alone not being able to benefit him, you won’t be able to benefit yourself. And so the importance of developing some inner strength that can bear these difficulties.

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.