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Our supreme teachers

Our supreme teachers

Part of a series of short Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks on Langri Tangpa’s Eight Verses of Thought Transformation.

  • The danger in having unrealistic expectations
  • Sentient beings do what sentient beings do
  • Being aware of our sense of entitlement when we have benefitted somebody
  • Seeing those who have hurt us as our teachers

When someone I have benefited,
And in whom I have placed great trust,
Hurts me very badly,
I will practice seeing that person as my supreme teacher.

How do we get ourselves in situations like this, where we’re counting on someone and then it falls apart?

In thinking about this, what’s going on? Looking at my own experience, one is that I have unrealistic expectations again. I’m expecting something from someone that I never confirmed with them, then I’m disappointed when they don’t fulfill it. That’s one thing that could be going on.

A second thing is that I did express those expectations, and there was an agreement between me and that person, and then they didn’t fulfill the agreement. And then I feel betrayed and hurt, and so on. Especially if it was an agreement where there was a lot of emotional involvement. If it’s a business agreement, okay, you feel a little bit disturbed, but you get over it. But when there’s emotional involvement, you thought you had an agreement, and then the other person doesn’t act according to it, then it’s really, really painful.

I was thinking of one incident that happened to me when I was working with somebody and we had agreed to do this and that and the other thing, and the person was really on board at first, and then they decided that, actually, they didn’t want to be, and what was really important to them was what they were doing before. And I was going like, “but but but….” That’s where I came up with the expression of, “Sentient beings do what sentient beings do.” In other words, people have good intentions, they’re interested, they promise. They don’t mean anything bad. And they say they’re going to do something. But sometimes they’re not aware of their own tendencies, or of their own interests, or their own abilities. So they promise things, and then after a while they just say, “Nope, I’m not doing it.” For whatever reason.

There what I find behind it is there’s the expectation that people will keep their word. The expectation that people are consistent. The expectation that people don’t change their minds. Now, it would be a nice expectation to have, that people keep their word. But is that a realistic expectation? That people always keep their words? No. Because their minds change. Things happen. And they want to do it differently.

Is it realistic to expect them to always be thoughtful in their commitments and decisions, and to be well aware of their own abilities and capabilities, and all these hidden things about ourselves that we don’t even know until it goes splat. Is it fair to expect people to be that self-aware so that when they make commitments they’re not going to change their mind, they’re going to fulfill it. That’s not practical either.

Sentient beings are sentient beings, and they do what sentient beings do. Which means that their minds are overwhelmed by afflictions and karma. And to not expect them to be influenced by afflictions and karma is really unrealistic.

Does that mean that we go to the other extreme and we don’t trust anybody? Because they all have afflictions and karma, and they could change their mind on us like in a finger snap, turn of a dime. (I think it has to be turn of a quarter now, there’s inflation.) But to expect that not to happen…. No, it’s really much more reasonable to say, “Yes, there is this agreement, I trust the person to a certain extent to keep that agreement, but I’m not going to be surprised if they don’t, because their mind is afflicted and karma ripens.” To have some wisdom from my side, and not set the bar so high. Set it like, “Okay, they said they’d do this, so I believe them. “I don’t want to live a life that’s filled with cynicism and mistrust and suspicion. I trust them, I’m not cynical. I expect this. But I’m not going to put all my eggs in one basket and be bowled over if it doesn’t happen like that.” Simply because I’ve lived for a while and you have to readjust your expectations according to what people are capable of. That or you keep getting hurt again, and again, and again when sentient beings are doing what sentient beings do. They aren’t buddhas. That’s another thing.

Another point that adds in there is a sense of entitlement. Why do we feel hurt when people betray our trust? “When somebody I have benefited and in whom I have placed great trust.” Often there’s this sense of entitlement. “I did so much.” And I think, often, parents feel this way towards their kids. “I did so much. I sacrificed so much for this child, and now this child is just doing…they’re thinking for themselves.” How outrageous. “Their version of happiness isn’t what my version of happiness for them is. I think this should make them happy. They think that should make them happy. What did I do wrong? Why is this child so ungrateful?” That’s very easy to happen. And that’s because there’s this feeling of entitlement. “I did so much.” Yes, there was a practice of generosity, but our generosity had a little bit of stickiness to it. There were some strings attached. And the other person didn’t have those strings. But we sure had them. So the other person ignores the strings, and then we’re going, “How come you broke all the strings? I thought that this was what was going to happen. How dare you?” To be aware within ourselves when we attach strings to things. When we have a sense of entitlement, and it’s kind of a shadow that we put over the other person, that we did this, so they’d better…. That’s another thing that’s going on with this verse.

Then it’s the whole issue of trust. What I’ve also seen is that very often we give trust to people that they cannot bear. It’s like if you have a two-year-old and an adult, you’ll trust the adult with a book of matches, but you won’t trust the two-year-old with a book of matches. That’s quite reasonable. Isn’t it? It doesn’t mean you’re cynical, it doesn’t mean you’re suspicious. It means that you’re aware of the capabilities of both parties. But sometimes we aren’t so aware of the capabilities of somebody else. Or we inflate their capabilities because we’re so attached to them, and we so much want the relationship to work out, that we are ignorant to where they’re really at and what they’re capable of. Again, it’s kind of related to unrealistic expectations. It’s giving somebody trust that they’re unable to bear. And very often their inability to bear it is right in front of our nose, but we are so infatuated with them, or so infatuated with the idea of how things are going to be, that we ignore the red flags.

Have you ever ignored red flags that were right there waving in front of your eyes? I’ve seen myself do it. And it’s like, there’s the red flag, but I really like this person so much. I don’t want that red flag to be there. Or I like them so much, and our relationship is so close, that I’m going to help them so they don’t have that problem anymore. You ever played the rescuer in a relationship? “You have this problem, but I care about you so much, and I have the ability, I’m going to help you change. I’m going to save you.”

When you take the bodhisattva vow, there’s something enticing about that. If you have the tendency to be a rescuer, the bodhisattva ideal sets you up for this kind of thing. “I’m keeping my bodhisattva vow. I’m going to rescue you. You can trust me. I’m the bodhisattva….” And don’t see what’s really going on. I think that’s why when they say the bodhisattvas have to generate the superknowledges, where you understand people’s abilities and interests, and you know their karmic dispositions, and you know what they’ve done before, and what can ripen soon. That’s why you need that, and why you need a mind without attachment. So that you can really see, “To what extent am I capable of influencing this person in a positive way? I’m not going to save them. I can’t save them. But even to what extent can I influence them given where they’re at, and making sure I don’t have a sticky mind that needs somebody to need me.” Because that’s another thing, isn’t it? There are some sticky points in the bodhisattva ideal for those of us who have certain personalities. The rescuer personality. The “I’m so kind, I’m so generous…. You’re going to do something for me. You’re going to reciprocate my love.” Whatever it is. It’s so easy for those things to come into play here. And then the other person doesn’t reciprocate. They don’t feel that same way. They weren’t asking us to rescue them. Or they did want us to rescue them, and then they had to do work that was too hard to be rescued, so then they decided they didn’t want to be rescued after all. Ever had that happen? You’re helping somebody, they go along with it for a while, and then suddenly, boom.

I have so many stories. [laughter]

I was just thinking here. When I went to Singapore, there was one young man who had a brain tumor. He had brain cancer, actually. And he came to see me about help. And I wrote to my teacher. I got practices for him to do. He wouldn’t do the practices. But I said, “I want to do animal liberation (I was living in Singapore at the time), so please will you take me because I want to do animal liberation.” This was the only way I could get him to do it. We went places. We got the animals. We liberated. I gave him the prayer book. He said the prayers. This was my way of getting him to do it. And then when my teacher finally sent the practices that he should do, he said no. He didn’t want that. And then he died. I was thinking that the Dharma meant more to him than it actually did. My exaggeration.

There’s a thing of pausing and really thinking, in what areas can I trust different people? Because it’s not like we have to trust everybody in all areas of life. When I get on an airplane, I trust the pilot to fly the plane. I don’t trust the pilot for other things, because I don’t know the guy. But I may trust some of you because I know you, so that when I am in need of something, that you’ll come and offer some help. But I won’t trust the pilot, when I need some help, to drop what he’s doing and help me. It’s a thing of all the different kinds of relationships that we have, and what areas do we trust different people in. It doesn’t mean that somebody’s insufficient, or the relationship is insufficient, just because we can’t trust them in a certain area. It just means that’s the way it is. That’s their capability. Or that’s the kind of relationship we have. We don’t need to put a thing on it, like, “Oh that person’s so untrustworthy.” It’s just I trust them in this area, but not in that area. And I’ve noticed the red flags and acknowledged the red flags, and I’m not whitewashing the red flags. Because if I whitewash red flags, I’m setting it up.

I think when it says here, when that person hurts me very badly, I will practice seeing that person as my supreme teacher. They’re teaching us something. What are they teaching us? They’re teaching us about our thoughts of entitlement. They’re teaching us about expectations that they haven’t agreed with. They’re teaching us about being so rigid in what we expect of somebody, even when they’ve promised, that we don’t expect them change. They’re teaching us about ignoring red flags. They’re teaching us about our arrogance thinking that we know that person so well we can predict everything about them. Our inability to see things clearly. If we regard that other person as our supreme teacher, when these situations happen, then instead of feeling so hurt and so betrayed, we’ll say, “Thank you.I want to be a bodhisattva. You’re teaching me important things I need to know in order to be a bodhisattva. This difficult situation is bodhisattva bootcamp. And you’re my sergeant. And by going through this and seeing my errors, I will become stronger inside. I will become more resourceful. I will get rid of some of my attachment. And then I’ll actually be more capable of benefiting people, because of this situation.” So instead of blaming them, and crying, and feeling hurt, saying, “You betrayed me,” we learn from the situation and we come out stronger because of it.

Audience: I have to confess that I have this issue after being here so many years. I make incredible assumptions about people who have been here only for a little while. I make assumptions. I don’t clarify things that need to be done. I don’t see them where they are. I just think that they should be someplace else. So I’m continually giving our young ones, our novices or guests, things that they don’t even have the information, they don’t even have the wherewithal, because I’m assuming things that aren’t true. So the longer I’ve been here, I see that I do that. I have to really meet the person where they are, rather than where I am. And then what happens is that I can see that I can be a lot more astute, a lot more observant, a lot more sensitive to other people’s capacities, rather than putting them all in this blanket, “Well, this is what I know, and everybody should know that as well.” It’s just a huge learning curve here. And people do their best. But I find that my disappointment’s gone way down because I’m seeing people much more realistically than I used to.

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.