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Flattening our pride

Part of a series of teachings on the text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for Lay Practitioners by Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa).

  • Looking at what we’re doing with our precious human life
  • Identifying pride when it arises
  • Coming to the teaching with an open and receptive mind
  • Looking carefully at how we hold the teachings
  • What we’re looking for from the teachings
  • The meaning of practicing the Dharma

The Essence of a Human Life: Flattening our pride (download)

The third verse:

You of fine features, you have gained
This opportune and leisured human form.
If you follow me who speaks to help others,
Listen well, I have something to say.

“You of fine features.” The person who requested the text, it kind of sounds like he almost prides himself on his good looks. So Je Rinpoche is playing along with it. “You’ve gained this opportune and leisured human form….” But, “If you follow me who speaks to help others, listen well, I have something to say.” This is how I’m reading it. If I said this to somebody it would be like, “Okay, you think you’re really good looking, you have this precious human life, but what are you following and who are you following, and what are you doing? And I have something to say that might be valuable, so maybe, kind of, unhook yourself from the mirror.” [laughter] Or unhook yourself from the image of yourself as being very attractive, as being in control, as being on top of it all. Does that verse kind of imply….? This is just my reading. I’m not saying that’s what Je Rinpoche is saying.

“You of fine features, you have gained this opportune and leisured form.” True. But why did he call him “you of fine features?”

Then when he says, “If you follow me who speaks to help others, listen well, I have something to say.” You would think that if he had already requested Je Rinpoche to write this that he would know that Je Rinpoche speaks to help others. But I kind of have a sense that maybe this guy has a little bit of pride that needs flattening somewhere. My projection. Maybe I have pride that needs flattening.

But I think most of us have pride that needs flattening, actually, before we listen to the teachings. Because it’s often our pride that makes us stand separate from the teachings with this kind of critical mind, like, “Well, I just don’t believe that. What idiot would believe that? I know what’s best. I’m intelligent.” And so we often don’t accept the teachings that we’re given because of our arrogance.

This is something that I wonder about sometimes as Buddhism is coming to America. Some of us have discussed this. And some teachers saying, “Well, the Buddha didn’t teach rebirth.” Or themselves not believing in rebirth. Is that a way of, kind of, “I know better than what the Buddha is saying.” But those people are at least admitting the Buddha taught that, but they don’t believe it. Other people say the Buddha didn’t even teach it, but it’s quite clear he did teach it.

Anyway, it’s an interesting thing to think about because it has to do with how receptive are we to listening to the teachings. And how much do we step back and insert our own ifs, ands, and buts, because we’re not quite ready to take something to heart.

I’m not saying that something’s wrong with us. We are where we’re at, and we can only listen to what we’re capable of listening to, and we can’t be somewhere on the path where we aren’t. That’s very clear. So it’s not a thing of saying somebody’s wrong, or somebody’s bad, or they’re negative. It’s just a thing for us to look inside and to ask ourselves, sometimes, how receptive am I to the teachings, and how much do the teachings actually hit at sensitive points—points that are sensitive in me and my psychological makeup—that make me kind of go like this [pushing away/holding off gesture].

Because there are lots of teachings that do. I mean, the teachings have to, otherwise they’re not going to shake us up. If we come out of a Dharma teaching feeling light, love, and bliss, and everything’s perfect, then nothing in our completely deluded mind changed. Did it? When we come out of a Dharma teaching saying, “What were they saying? And what in the world does that mean? And how does it apply to me?” then that teaching is having some kind of effect.

It’s interesting sometimes to ask ourselves what we’re looking for from the teachings. Are we looking to hear teachings so that we feel good afterwards? Well if that’s our motivation for listening to teachings, you’re not going to feel good when I teach you about precious human life and how fortunate we are not to be born as hell beings, animals, and hungry ghosts because you’re going to go, “But I don’t believe in those. And I don’t even want to think of being one.” And then you won’t be happy with the next verse that talks about death, either. “I don’t want to hear about death.” And then kind of down further about the disadvantages of samsara. “I don’t want to hear about that, you have to separate from everything that you like, and that you don’t get what you want.” I mean, this is our life but, like, “don’t tell me that!”

Do you see what I’m getting at? Sometimes it makes us really ask what is our motivation for approaching the teachings? Are we seeking liberation or are we seeking to feel good afterwards?

Sometimes I wonder, when people really like the visualizations and the mantra recitations—I mean, it’s nice when you do those, often you come out feeling quite blissful and quite good from that—but if that’s what your mind is seeking then somehow…. We say at the beginning “by practicing generosity and the other far-reaching practices may I attain buddhahood for the benefit of sentient beings….” If we say that at the beginning, but we say it’s a good meditation session because I came out feeling light, and love, and bliss, then is our motivation necessarily matching? I’m not saying it’s bad to feel good after your meditation session, it’s nice to. But I’m saying that we shouldn’t use feeling good after the session as the criteria for a productive meditation session. That’s what I’m saying. Because sometimes the productive sessions are when we’re going, “What in the world? I don’t understand this. What am I thinking? I don’t even understand myself.” You know? It’s this process of questioning, it’s the process of our buttons getting pushed so that we have to look deeper. And that produces a lot of growth. Not the glossing over of “isn’t this Dharma path wonderful, and I feel so good.”

Are you getting what I’m saying? I mean, we can say the four immeasurables: “May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes. (Oh wonderful.) May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes. (Very wonderful.) May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss (oh, I’m floating on a cloud). May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment, and anger (wonderful, that’s an ideal world. That’s what I want.)” And if you just stay there, you feel good. But then when you come out of your meditation and … “Somebody left their dirty dish in the sink. You know? I mean, who do they think they are leaving their dirty dish in the sink for me to clean up? This is totally unacceptable. I have to tell them for their own benefit because they’re just misbehaving.” And so all of our feel good four immeasurables are out the window at that point, and we’re not even relating our anger—and that’s what it is, isn’t it? Anger. “I have to do somebody else’s dish. What do they think I am, their slave?” It’s anger. But not being able to admit their anger, not being able to see their own absence of equanimity, let alone love, compassion, and joy. And so the practice…. The feel good aspect and the reality of the mind are like [opens arms wide] this far apart. And we don’t grow that way. We don’t grow. We have to see how our mind is really operating, and then we grow. Then we start to cultivate a different way of looking at things.

So if this person were really practicing, then when they see themselves getting mad at the person who left the dirty dish in the sink (who of course wants to harm them by making them waste their time washing somebody else’s dish. Because clearly this person was not absent minded. Clearly they wanted to harm me in particular. Not anybody else, but me.) So if this person were practicing, then when this comes up, instead of bringing it to a community meeting of [hands on hips], they would say, “Oh, I’m angry. Why am I angry? What am I thinking? Oh, I have this whole story I’m telling myself, that people are deliberately wanting to harm me. That they’re looking down on me. That they expect me to be their slave. And I have a little bit of pride because I think I’m too good for other people to be like that. And my love does not stretch that far, to wash somebody else’s dish. Unless, of course, they make three prostrations and say ‘thank you’ afterwards. Then I might consider it.” So, you know, we would be able to look at our own mind and say, “Oh boy, look what’s going on.” And then correct the attitude, and remember, “Oh, no, I’m practicing the bodhisattva path, I am the servant of others. This is somebody else who has been kind to me in so many previous lives. And what’s so bad about washing a dish? It takes all of 30 seconds. Whereas this story that I’m making up about it is taking up an hour of my time.” [laughter] Yes?

You see what I mean? This is real practice, is dealing with those things when they come up, and transforming the mind and seeing where we’re at. That’s real practice. At least that’s what my teachers taught. They used to say, just sitting on the cushion and chanting and looking holy and acting like this [palms together looking sweet], that that’s not what it’s really about; that “practice Dharma” means “transform your mind.”

So maybe tomorrow we’ll get to talking about precious human life.

Can you imagine somebody who’s very attractive…. Or some movie star, or some politician, or some CEO…. You know, they walk in to a Dharma teaching and it’s like [puffs up] “Well, I’m here to hear the Dharma. What do you have to say that could possibly make sense to somebody as attractive, well educated, intelligent as me.” You can imagine somebody walking in to the teachings like that. Now maybe we didn’t walk in with exactly that thing, but we might have walked in with something similar. And so this is one of the reasons, when they talk about the ngondro (the preliminary practices), doing 100,000 prostrations…. When you do 100,000 prostrations—the long prostrations—your nose is on that floor. And the whole idea is to help us see the good qualities of the Triple Gem, and to see that we’re not really as wise as we think we are, and develop some humility. And then with that humility we come and approach the teachings. And then the teachings just flow into us, and they stay in us. Because our motivation is correct.

Questions? Comments?

Audience: Another benefit about transforming our own mind is it’s going to be very beneficial for the planet, environmentally, saving a lot of paper from people writing notes. [laughter]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes. That it’s also very good for the planet, and saves so many trees, because we’re not writing so many notes about, “Please wash your own dish at such and such a time in this and such a way.” [To audience] You’re not thinking of anybody, are you?

Audience: Well….. [laughter]

Audience: I was thinking how much I appreciate the teachings about this, and then people who, in their own way, have taught me that. Because I know when I came to the Dharma—to a Dharma center, let’s put it that way—that I had this going for myself. Which was what I was taught in our culture. And I can remember the first time that I actually talked to Dachen Rinpoche, I walked into the office and I interrupted everything that was going on, and he made Adrienne stop everything she was doing and pay attention to what I was doing, and I got the lesson right there, that oh, this isn’t the way you do this.

And then the other thing that happened was that Lee Harris, who gave us all those books (he was a monk back then), he said to me, “I think you ought to keep your mouth shut.” [laughter] I didn’t hardly know him. And I said, “That would be a good idea.” And he was right.

And I was [inaudible] Dachen Rinpoche once, and it was a funny thing to me because it’s not what you would expect but I think it worked. A guy came in and—you know, we have to learn this because our culture isn’t like this—and he didn’t have any sense of the preciousness of the teachings. And so he wanted to ask, ask, ask all these questions, and it was something about his attitude that, maybe he felt he needed to learn, and he (Rinpoche) threw him this washcloth and he said, “Wipe down that table and then I’ll answer your question.” [laughter]

For me those things are so perfect to see because we grow up in a completely different way, and then we can’t learn.

VTC: Yes. We grew up in a way of thinking that we’re intelligent, and this and that and the other thing. Yes.

Audience: We don’t see the pride and we don’t see how it’s hampering…. I mean, of course it always happens now…. Of course, it still happens, but it’s nice to have teachings and friends who help you.

VTC: Yes. Anything else?

Audience: A story from a center, and one nun was a doctor before she ordained, and the other nuns they had been nurses. And the geshe, he gave the former doctor all these jobs like cleaning and cooking, and what she was not used to. And she had … challenge because she used to be a doctor and she had somebody lower, not one but many people. She learned.

VTC: Yes.

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.