Part of a series of short talks on the Seven Jewels of the Aryas.
- Tying these verses to current events
- How our behavior influences others
- The importances of cultivating these two mental factors and how to develop them
I was just watching Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress, and pretty intense. Lots of Dharma in there to think about, which is why I’m talking about it right now. Otherwise, normally I would not be watching this kind of stuff, especially during retreat. But I feel it’s quite important for the country, and quite important when I make comments publicly, that I know what’s going on.
It just so happens that listening to his testimony corresponds with the next two of the seven jewels of the aryas that I was due to talk about, which are (I translate them as) personal integrity and consideration for others. Some people translate the first one as “shame,” and I think “shame” is a very poor translation because “shame” in English has a double meaning. One is “shame” meaning I’m defective goods, basically. “I’ve been shamed my whole life. There’s nothing good about me.” That’s the meaning of shame that’s kind of a prevalent meaning nowadays, and that’s why I think it’s very harmful to translate that particular Buddhist term in that way, because it makes people think,because it’s a virtuous mental factor, so it makes people think that feeling that they’re worthless is virtuous. And that’s not at all what the Buddha was talking about.
Another meaning, in English, of “shame” is you’re ashamed of yourself, you did something that doesn’t meet your own values or your own expectations for your own behavior. So somebody may say, “I feel quite ashamed of what I did, because I knew better and I could have done better.”
Do you see the difference in those two meanings of “shame”? It’s very important to see this difference. To avoid that confusion I just translate the term as a sense of personal integrity. Because what the meaning is is you have a sense of self-respect, you have values and principles, and precepts, and because you respect yourself and you respect the commitments you’ve made, then you avoid nonvirtuous activities. To me that’s very much a sense of personal integrity and self-respect.
Let me describe the second one before I relate to the hearing.
The second one, that’s sometimes translated as “embarrassment,” but embarrassment isn’t very good either. Some people translate it as “decency.” I just came across that. That’s not a bad translation. But I use “consideration for others.” And it’s consideration for others in a very specific way, it’s not the general “Oh I’m being considerate of you by making the appointment at a time that’s convenient for you.” It’s not that kind of consideration for others. It’s an awareness that our behavior influences other people, and because we care about other people, and because we care about their beliefs and their faith, and their spiritual practice, then we abandon wrongdoing ourselves out of consideration for them, so we don’t destroy their faith, or destroy their trust in us.
The first one, integrity, is out of concern for ourselves and our own beliefs and precepts, and so on. And the second one is out of concern for others and their beliefs and their faith. They’re two of the 11 virtuous mental factors because they protect us from doing nonvirtuous activities.
They’re two factors that are very, very important for us to cultivate as practitioners, because if we don’t have these, then some idea comes into our mind and we are just taken over by that afflicted idea and we act it out. And then we wind up harming ourselves and doing things that we don’t feel proud of ourselves, and doing things that upset other people’s faith in the Dharma, make them lose faith, make them criticize the Dharma or Buddhism in general, or the Buddha, or our teachers, or whatever. They both really have to do with an awareness of how our actions affect first ourselves, and second one, also others.
I think you can see why these are important mental factors to have and to actively cultivate in our lives, because otherwise some situation comes up where it’s to our advantage to “fib.” That’s the polite word for “lie.” We’re just fibbing. “It’s a little white lie. I’m just fibbing….” It’s a lie. And it’s often, when we say to ourselves we’re fibbing, it means it’s a big lie. Not a small lie. Small lies we’ll say, “Oh it was a little white lie.”
If we don’t have these two mental factors, then we don’t monitor what comes out of our mouth and what actions our body does, and it comes from not monitoring our mind. As a result we say and do things influenced by ignorance, anger, and attachment, or ambition, or jealousy, or arrogance, or who knows what, harming ourselves and others.
Now I’m coming back to why I watched the testimony. He apologized in the last few months very profusely for his behavior. He especially had the one of consideration for others, talking about how his behavior has harmed his family, so he feels especially bad about that. And openly, he started out his testimony with apologies for lying to Congress and to the American people. The way he said this seemed very truthful to me, I don’t think he was lying, because at this point he has nothing to gain from lying except a longer prison sentence. Because why is he in the jam he’s in? One of the reasons is because he lied to Congress. Now he knows not to do that. So I think he has sincere regret.
He also, in his apology that’s been in the press for the last few months, he also said, “I went against my own conscience, and I was overtaken by ambition.” And he was so impressed with Trump as a person, and with “Now I am Trump’s personal lawyer.” So infatuated with that idea and that prestige that it gave him that he basically forgot about his own ethical principles. And he admitted doing that.
From what he said, I can see he does now have a sense of integrity. The Republicans at the hearing were just trying to say, “You lied to us before, why should we believe you now?” What he didn’t say was, “Well if I lied to you before, and you think I’m lying now, and I’m telling you the opposite of what I was saying before…. You think what I’m saying now, which is X, and what I said before was the opposite of X, then you’re saying that you think both of those are true….”
People were just really trying to tear him down in a way that made me feel ashamed of how the Congress operates. I don’t like seeing people deliberately trying to ruin other people. And cut them off. They would ask him questions, he would start to answer, they would interrupt and not let him answer, and then the time would be out.
But what becomes so clear is, why is Michael Cohen in this jam to start with? Because he didn’t, at the time he was working for Trump, he was operating under the influence of ambition, attachment, self-centeredness, self-glorification, and he was willing to lie because the group-think of everybody around Trump–he said–was everybody’s there to protect him. It’s the unspoken thing that you cover up and you do these things to make him look okay.
It points out…you can look at his life and see what a mess he’s in right now, and he’s clearly quite disturbed about the effect it’s had on his family and that he’s going to be in prison. He’s reporting in a couple of months for his prison sentence. But it really shows you, when we don’t have those two mental factors, then we find ourselves in this kind of position. All of his negativities are in front of the American public and everybody’s discussing them. It’s a very good lesson.
Then the question comes, well how do we develop those two mental factors? I think here it’s really helpful to look at our own experience, and look at the times in our life when we got ourselves into big jams, one. And second, the times in our lives where we did not feel good about what we did. And learning to be honest about that. Where we just didn’t feel good about what we did, even though people around us may have said it was fantastic. And then the other one is, when we got ourselves into jams. Look and see, “What was I thinking at that time? Did I at all consider my own values and principles, my own integrity? Did I at all consider the effect of my action on others, and on their faith in the Dharma, or on their faith in me as a human being?” If the answer is no, then to ask ourselves, “What would it have looked like inside my mind, what would I have been thinking if I had integrity, if I had consideration for others?” Going back to those situations and replaying it in our mind, before we did those actions what a more healthy and virtuous way of looking at the situation would have been so that we didn’t get ourselves in the jam, or so that we didn’t do those things that we don’t feel good about having done.
Are you getting what I’m saying? Because I think this thing of looking back in the past when we acted in the opposite way, and then asking ourselves, “What would it have looked like if I had these two virtuous mental factors?” Then that forces us to think about, well how do you think when you have integrity? And how do you think when you have consideration for others? In thinking like that, that’s how you develop those qualities. And then you can roleplay it. “Okay, when I was in those situations, if I had had integrity and consideration for others, what would I have said? How would I have acted?”
This came up a lot in the questioning. Because he worked for Trump for ten years, from 2007 to 2017. He knew early on about the lying and the conning, and everything else. And the question came up, “Well why didn’t you quit then?” And when you lack these two, you justify all that behavior to yourself. “He’s so great. He was this famous person.” Cohen said, “I felt like I could do something big, because I’m working for this person.” Then you just lie to yourself, basically. Then the ambition to be somebody, the attachment to be somebody. Then you cover things up, to yourself.
Also what came out, and I’ve been in this situation before, is when you’re around somebody who is very powerful, who pushes their thing on you, and the whole group is (however big that group is, it may be two people in a family, or it may be all the other employees), but everybody thinks that way, it’s very difficult to get in touch with your own personal integrity and say no. Because that person’s powerful, the group agrees with him. How many times in our own lives have we done that, and done the wrong thing because of either the group pressure or the pressure from being around somebody who is very powerful. It’s very difficult to stand up to that.
That’s what, in my life when I look at people during World War II, who helped protect the Jews and the gypsies and everybody else that was sent to the camps, those people had integrity, they had consideration for others. And they did what was right even though it was dangerous for them. And that takes a lot of courage. It takes a lot of courage. It’s so much easier to go along, well everybody’s doing it, that’s what everybody thinks. And then there we are.
Those two mental factors came on the day of his testimony to congress. And there’s a lesson in there for all of us.