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21st-century Buddhists

Approaching the Buddhist Path

An online talk on the occasion of the release of the Italian edition of Approaching the Buddhist Path, Volume 1 in The Library of Wisdom and Compassion series coauthored by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Venerable Thubten Chodron. The event was hosted by Nalanda Edzioni. In English with Italian translation. The talk begins with a showing of a video that introduces Sravasti Abbey to the audience.

  • Sravasti Abbey background: “Creating Peace in a Chaotic World”
  • Our motivation is the most important aspect of whatever we’re about to do
  • Balancing spiritual practice and working to benefit society
  • Ethical conduct in business is what leads to success
  • The happiness or suffering of one person affects many others
  • Questions and answers

Interview with Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): I’m very happy to be here with you today. I lived in Italy for two years in 1979, 1980 and spoke “kind of Italian” in my English accent, but I’ve forgotten it all, so I apologize, and I will rely on Rita’s translation. I learned to speak Italian by speaking English and adding an “o” or an “a” at the end and moving my hands a lot — and people understood me!

Before we actually begin the talk today, let’s just sit and come back to our breath, let our mind settle down, and then I’ll lead you in cultivating a motivation, and we’ll have the talk, and after the talk, we’ll have some questions.

Sit with your back straight and lower your eyes and let your breath be natural. Don’t deep breathe; don’t force it in any way. Simply be aware of inhalation and exhalation and how your breath connects you to life and to the rest of the universe.

Let’s do this for a minute and let the mind settle.

Now let’s cultivate our motivation: since we will be spending time together, let’s make it really productive by having a motivation of compassion for living beings. Feel the connection between yourself and all other living beings, and wish them well, wish them to be free of suffering and to have happiness, peace, and harmony. With that kind of motivation of compassion, let’s share this morning and begin the talk.

Venerable Chodron’s Dharma talk

I always begin things with the motivation because our motivation is the most important aspect of what we’re going to do. This thing will come up throughout the talk because our motivation really determines whether what we do is valuable or not.

We may look fantastic in the eyes of the public; we may present ourselves well and make everyone think we are competent and powerful and wealthy. But if our mind is filled with anger and greed, it’s all a farce; it’s all fake.

So, it’s very important to constantly check our mind, check our intention, check our motivation. If it’s something just looking out for our own fame and gain, it’s important to stop and to transform our motivation and to cultivate an attitude of compassion and love for living beings and then to act.

If we do that, we will be sincere human beings who other humans can trust. If our motivation is totally selfish, we may look good on the outside, but people will figure that out eventually, and they won’t trust or respect us.

In addition, we’re the ones who know our own hearts, so if we act without sincerity, inside of ourselves we don’t feel good about what we have done. And if we don’t feel good about ourselves, the whole public display of fame and gain is useless.

I’m really delighted that Nalanda Edizioni published the [Italian edition of the] first volume in The Library of Wisdom and Compassion titled Approaching the Buddhist Path. I have to say that I never ever anticipated co-authoring a book with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. But this series of books came about because over 30 years ago, I had an interview with the Dalai Lama and asked him about writing a short text for people in the West, and he said, “Oh, very good, but let’s write the longer commentary first” and then he sent me off with transcripts and instructions to start writing, and that’s how all of this happened.

So, what I talk about today will be mostly His Holiness’ ideas, but since he’s been my teacher for many, many years, I have also tried to train my mind the way that he has instructed.

His Holiness talks about how it’s important to have a balanced life with being in touch with our spiritual practice but also acting in society to contribute to the benefit of living beings. We need a balance in our lives between those.

This is really important because if we all want to contribute to the benefit of society, but if we’re always looking outward, working in society, then we may lose touch with our ability to evaluate our own actions and to keep our own motivation pure and altruistic.

If we go to the other extreme and work just internally on our own spiritual practice without directly relating to others, we may think we are progressing spiritually, but we haven’t been challenged. So, it’s important to engage with others to ensure that our spiritual practice is bearing the fruits that we want it to have.

If we stay alone and do our practice then it is so easy to have compassion for all those living beings that we don’t have to interact with. But when we are actually engaged with society, our mental afflictions come up. We get attached; we get jealous; we get angry. At that time, we need to see if our spiritual practice is actually working to calm our minds.

We may be surprised because we thought we were so peaceful and holy and compassionate, but then we go to try to do some work in society, and we are getting mad at people (“Why don’t they realize they need to change; they’re so stupid!”) and all our practice of compassion has evaporated. This is why we need this balance to really be able to invoke our compassion in really difficult situations when they are actually happening.

I once saw a video about Mother Teresa, and in one scene, she was in Lebanon talking to some officials and negotiating something to improve the lives for the people there. In the background you could hear bombs going off, and Mother Teresa was just sitting there talking to these people while her life was in danger. I thought to myself, “My goodness, her spiritual practice is working if she can sit there and be calm in this kind of situation.” I realized that I would never put myself in that situation because I’m too scared. It was something that really woke me up to an area of my practice that I needed to work more on.

Okay, now, how do we apply a feeling of compassion and care and concern for other living beings in our general work in society? This is a very important question. I’ll make some examples. The first one regards business. I’m often asked by people in the business world how we can be successful in our business and make money and yet be honest at the same time. They say that it’s impossible. That they have to lie and inflate the prices because they have to make money, or even if they don’t make money directly, they have to please their bosses who tell them to act like this.

I have a friend who some years ago worked in Hong Kong for Levi Strauss (that large company that makes our jeans and other things). She was an executive in that company. I asked her, because she was also a spiritual practitioner, a Buddhist, “How do you make money and be honest at the same time?” She told me that it’s very important to be honest. In the long term, if you are honest and take care of the people you do business with, you will be more successful than if you lie to them right now.

She told me that if you lie to your clients now, if you overcharge them now (or do something kind of hanky panky in your business), eventually those people will find out and realize you are not a reliable partner, and they will not do business with you in the future. They will also tell their friends in the business world not to do business with you either. So, in the long term, your business suffers because you may make money at the beginning, but when people find out you’re not honest, they are not going to support you or recommend you to other people.

If you’re honest and you really care about your clients and your customers, they understand that, and they will trust you and come back to you again and again and recommend you to other people. So, in the long term your business is more successful, but also, on the human level, you’ve created a good relationship; you feel good about how you’ve done business. You just feel better, and the other people feel better. In our world, that feeling of happiness and wellbeing contributes to our joy in life much more than money and status and fame do.

[Venerable Chodron’s cat walks across the computer screen. Laughter.] This is my cat who just walked across the screen; she says “Hello” to all of you, too.

Another area in society where compassion is very important is to do something about income inequality and the standard of living in equality in our very highly developed cultures. The fact that there are lower classes and upper classes, that some people live in poverty while others have not even seen poor people: this kind of inequality is something that hurts all of us equally. It’s not just something that hurts the people who are impoverished; it hurts everybody.

So, why is this? Well, if there are some people who are not being treated fairly and are being discriminated against and do not get a good education then because of that, they become unhappy. When we live in society with people who are unhappy, they speak out and they let us know they are unhappy, and that affects our lives.

Let me give you an example of that from the state where I live (Washington). Some years ago there was a measure on the ballot whether to increase property taxes and then give that extra money from the taxes to the school districts to improve the level of education and for after school activities for the children.

Some of the people, because this was a property tax, people who owned properties and had very nice houses were going to have to pay more, and some people didn’t want to do that. They said, “Our children are grown; why should we pay for somebody else’s children to be educated? They should pay their own taxes and sponsor the educational system themselves. We don’t want to give any of our money for that.”

Now, when children don’t have a good education, when they don’t have after school activities to learn art and music; what do the children do when they don’t have these things? We all know what happens: they get involved in gang activity; they do drugs; they get into mischief. When they need money for drugs, when they get into mischief, whose houses will they be breaking into, who will be the target of the mischief? The rich people who did not want to give their money for the education of somebody else’s children. So, those people wind up suffering themselves because of their own stinginess.

Then they have to live in gated communities, then they have to put burglar alarms in their houses. They become very afraid that their possessions will be robbed. That doesn’t create happiness in their own lives.

Right away what we see is that everybody’s lives are intertwined. The happiness of one person, or the unhappiness of that person, affects the happiness and unhappiness of other people. There’s no way to escape this interdependence. The Dalai Lama consistently tells us, “If you want to be happy, take care of others.”

It’s really true. People then question, “Well, but…if I’m compassionate and kind to someone else, they benefit and I lose out because I’m giving my possessions and my resources to them, so I don’t have it. So the person I’m compassionate to is the person who gets the best part of the deal.” That’s what a lot of people say to him.

But then he follows it up by saying, “Well, actually that’s not true. When I’m compassionate, I’m the one who benefits more than the person who is at the receiving end.” Because the “reward” of compassion is that we feel joy in our own hearts; we feel like we have contributed to the happiness and wellbeing of others, and we human beings feel good when we do that. We feel like our life has meaning and purpose. We feel that we have contributed to society when we can give and share with others.

On the other hand, when we help somebody else, we’re not always sure if they will accept the help or if they will use it, so for that reason, he says that the giving itself is the benefit that we experience from sharing and being generous. Helping somebody and expecting to have a good reputation or expecting that person to thank us or praise us, if we’re thinking about that as the benefit of giving then that’s not certain. Whereas when we give and help with a sincere heart then automatically, from our own side, we feel good about what we’ve done, and other people thanking and praising us is really inconsequential; it doesn’t matter.

When we look at our interdependence with others in this way then we derive so much internal joy from contributing to the wellbeing of others, and this pertains a lot to what we are doing as a global community with respect to climate change and global warming.

If we only look out for ourselves and our country, if we only think of the present moment, and we don’t think of the future, then our actions are going to be very distorted and lead to more global warming, more pollution, and all the bad effects that will come from that. Those bad effects affect us as well as affecting everybody else!

It’s the same thing if we harm others, we experience the bad effects that eventually accumulate because we will be living with people who are unhappy because of the quality of their lives.

Some people might say, “Well, by the time that happens, I won’t be here, so other people will experience it, and they will learn how to fix climate change, and all this stuff.” That motivation is not very good, is it? It’s saying, “I can do whatever I want and be selfish, and other people will experience the garbage, but that’s okay; they’ll fix it up anyway.”

So, who are those other people who are going to suffer? Your children. Your grandchildren. If you believe in rebirth, it might even be you in another life!

This is why His Holiness says, “If you want to be happy, be selfishly happy and take care of others because if you take care of others, you take care of yourself.”

The effects of climate change are very far reaching. It’s not just looking at the rising sea level and feeling bad for the countries who are at a lower altitude and the oceans are encroaching on their cities. It’s not just that.

What happens is that once people can no longer live on their land because it’s flooded, they are going to move to other countries and other lands, and places will then have an increase in population from all the migration that’s going to occur. So, in Italy you could end up living in Sweden and Finland after a few generations when the heat in the southern countries becomes too strong. Then there will be too many people in the northern countries, and we will have a whole different set of problems.

All this human migration, it’s already happening. In Europe there’s an influx of people in African countries because of political problems in their countries but also because of climate change. This puts a stress on the economies and societies in Europe, and then as things get warmer and warmer and people have to move farther and farther north, more people will be displaced, and it will just continue like this.

Questions and Answers

I just looked at the clock, and I said we would give time for questions, and maybe answers, so I think we should probably do that right now. But my major point for this entire talk is about the importance of compassion for ourselves and everybody on the planet to have happy lives. That compassion has to start with us; we can’t point fingers and say, “You should be kinder; you should be more compassionate.” We have to start doing that and then it will spread to others.

Audience: Could you please give a short lesson for all children who are going to be experiencing an increasingly complex world about why we need more goodhearted humans. From the depth of my heart I request this advice from you, thinking not only of children, but also of parents, grandparents, teachers, and so forth, in order to create a connection, something they can remember, between them and a wise practitioner like yourself. So, if you were speaking to children, what would you say to them?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): I would say basically what I’ve said in this talk: having a kind heart is the secret to your own happiness and to the happiness of the people you care about and the happiness of all living creatures. Develop a kind heart. Now, there’s going to be some kid that says, “Well, that sounds good, but this kid just threw stuff at me and stole my ball, why should I be kind to him?” Adults think, “That’s just a child’s question,” but adults think the same way. It’s just that instead of a ball and sand, they are talking about business deals and things like that. But it’s the same thing. So, what I would tell the child who asked that is, “Okay, if somebody acts like that then they have a problem, and can you understand their problem and care about their problem and help them solve it?”

Because maybe that child is upset and unhappy because of something that happened at home before they came to school, or maybe they didn’t do well on a test, so they got angry at others. Try to understand that the person who acts like that is unhappy. When somebody acts like that, if we can be patient and ask them, “What are your needs? What are your concerns?” then we can learn what is really underlying the situation.

What interferes with us really doing that is that when they do something we get inflamed and then we don’t listen to what’s going on with the other person, we just attack back. So, then you have two unhappy people attacking each other whereas if we have a calm mind and listen to what is disturbing that person, maybe we can help them solve it. If we can’t solve the problem, at least they will feel like someone cares about them and is listening, and often, that is the big thing that helps people calm down.

I want to give an example. This is an adult example, but kids can probably understand it. I had a friend who was driving in the city, and somebody rear ended her. When rear ended, it’s the other person’s fault, so she got out of the car, and the person who rear ended her got out of the car. The other person was all set for my friend to be really angry and yell, “Why weren’t you looking where you were going? You ruined my car!” They were expecting my friend to make a big scene.

Instead, what my friend did is she said, “We have to wait for the police to come and make a report, but let’s pray together while we are waiting.” So, they just sat there together and prayed. She was calm; the other driver was calm. The police came and did the report; it was settled in a very amicable way. There was no further suffering because of it. You can see the effect of stopping and listening and caring about others.

Thank you for that question. That’s a very good question.

Audience: The importance of the protection of our environment and its biodiversity is an increasing concern in terms of our country and political choices. In your book it is said that to protect the environment is an ethical issue. How does Buddhism relate to this issue? What are the main suggestions to put into practice for practitioners and nonpractitioners.

VTC: Okay, so why is it an ethical issue? The essence of ethics or morality is nonharmfulness. We often think that ethical conduct is following a bunch of rules that someone else set up. From the Buddhist viewpoint, that’s not what ethical conduct is. Ethical conduct is not harming others with how we think, how we speak, and how we act. If we don’t want to harm others, because others live in an environment, that means we can’t harm the environment. If we do, we harm the beings who live in it. That’s why it becomes an ethical issue.

When I’m speaking about not damaging others, it doesn’t mean just human beings. We aren’t the only kind of living beings on this planet; there are so many animals in the sea, birds in the sky, bugs and mammals and other beings on Earth. We need to have a big mind that cares about all of these beings on Earth no matter where they live or whether we see them or not. To have an attitude of nonharmfulness towards all of them is important, and it must show in how we do business. That has to do with reducing pollution and reducing consumerism, which is very influential in polluting the environment.

If we pollute the oceans, for example, we are not only harming human life and the lives of the beings that live there. The health of the ocean also influences life on the ground and life in the air. So, we have to take care of everybody, and there are thousands more living beings living under the water in the ocean than there are human beings. It’s not our right to destroy their lives and their environment.

Audience: Could you speak on the Buddhist view regarding protecting marine life on which we depend?

VTC: We have to realize that human beings are not the only life on the planet, and human beings on this earth are not the only life in the universe. I’m sure there are other living beings in other places that are alive. So, we have to take care of everybody. Regarding marine life specifically, I’m going to say something that probably a lot of people will not like. If you care about marine life, don’t eat them. Be vegetarian. If you care about the environment, don’t eat meat because the production of meat from cattle is a major pollutant in our environment because of the way they live and their digestion and so forth. So, if you really care about living beings, just think about it: do you want someone to eat you for lunch? We live out in the forest, and there are some cougars that probably want to eat us for lunch, and I don’t want them to eat me. We can stay alive without eating other creatures.

Now, of course, this is an individual decision. I don’t want to be a born-again vegetarian and just rant and rave about it and make people feel guilty. I don’t think that is beneficial at all. But if it’s possible to abandon eating meat, or at least marine life, or at least eat less of them, then that is a kindness to all beings who cherish their bodies and want to stay alive just like we do.

So, I think we have reached the end. I want to thank you very much for organizing this to Nalanda Edzioni. I also want to wish everyone well. May you have happiness, and may you create the causes of happiness. Also, Rita, thank you very much for the wonderful translation. Hope to meet you all in person one day! Bye, everybody.

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.