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Kindness in practice

Kindness in practice

  • People who fight wars think they are being kind, but it is only to one group
  • In Buddhism, ignorance in our own minds is the enemy
  • Through partiality caused by ignorance, we help our friends and harm our enemies
  • How putting ourselves in others’ shoes helps us to be kind in difficult situations
  • A discussion about war between Hamas and Israel, and war in general
  • Working with our clinging attachment, anger and resentment, and ignorance to live in peace
  • Tips for resolving conflicts – meeting everybody’s needs
  • Questions and answers
    • Why are so many Buddhists bald?
    • Is there true evil in the world?
    • Why is it so hard to put ourselves in the shoes of people who are different from us?
    • How do you diffuse conflict when the other person refuses to see outside their own point of view?

We’re going to talk about kindness. Can you imagine talking about that in the middle of a war, where wars are based on anything but kindness, but where the people who want to fight the wars think that they’re being kind? In many ways it’s easier and in other ways it’s more difficult to talk about kindness when there’s war happening. That’s true especially if you have friends living in those areas. I have friends in Russia. I have friends in Ukraine. I have friends in Israel. I met some Palestinians when I was in Israel, and I don’t know where they are now. I visited Gaza. So, these things are not just something happening halfway around the world to “all those other people” who we will let figure it out. Part of my brother-in-law’s family is in Israel. Some of them are in Tel Aviv where it’s getting bombed, and some of them are in the West Bank. It’s not like Gaza right now, but who knows what will happen with this crazy war. 

Why would you take up a weapon to represent a group of people? Some people say it’s their duty or their responsibility. They think, “This is my group, and I have to defend it and protect it.” So, “This is my way of showing kindness.” The thing is that it’s showing kindness to one group but what about the other group? That’s what’s always forgotten. What about the other group? What are they experiencing? That’s what we have to think about. It’s not just “our group,” is it? We have to consider the effect of our actions on everybody, and also on ourselves. It’s not just on “our group.” 

In the first Dharma course I attended, my teacher commented on how human beings are so much like dogs. When you’re nice to them they love you; when you’re a stranger they bark at you and bite you. In other words, it’s help your friends, harm your enemies. I was so shocked when I heard him say that. He said, “Dogs help their friends and harm their enemies: it’s the same with human beings.” And I thought, “Oh, he’s right. He’s right.” But we don’t think that way. Somehow we think that our helping friends and harming enemies is very noble. It’s very noble: “I’m sacrificing myself for the benefit of others.” And we’re creating a lot of terror in the process. I didn’t intend to start this talk that way, but this has been on my mind, so it came out of my mouth. [laughter] What I like to start things with is a few minutes of watching our breath and letting our minds calm down and then cultivating a good motivation for the talk. So, let’s try that.

So, we’re just watching our breath without judging our breath. There’s no good breath and no bad breath. [laughter] Except for what they tell you on television. [laughter] There’s just breathing, so just pay attention to that breathing without judging it. If you get distracted, bring your attention back home to the breath.

Cultivating our motivation

Let’s begin by recalling that we are a member of the group of all living beings. There’s one big group of all living beings. And there has to be some common point on the basis of which we form this big group. That common point is that each and every one of them simply wants to be happy and each and every one of them also does not want to suffer. From that viewpoint, there is absolutely no difference between different living beings, no matter their form, their physical characteristics, their mental characteristics, their race, their religion, their nationality, their sexual identity. None of these things are the things that make us into the group of living beings.

The common point is the wish for happiness and the wish to be free of suffering. If we can see that wish in every single living being that we encounter, and that’s the primary thing we see when we see any living being, then it dawns on us that there are no friends and dear ones, there are no enemies and hateful ones, and there are no strangers either. Try for a minute and let your mind rest in that nondiscrimination of friend, enemy, stranger—helper, harmer, neutral person. Just see them all as equal in not wanting suffering and wanting happiness.

And then consider that being in this large group of all living beings, we’re dependent on others. They produce our food. They build the building we live in. They make the roads we drive on. They teach us everything that we know, from just how to speak to very advanced teachings. Without other living beings, there’s no way we could stay alive. 

Given that, doesn’t it make more sense to help each other? Doesn’t it make more sense to cherish other living beings and encourage them in their goodness? Doesn’t it make more sense to have tolerance instead of wanting revenge? With all of that in mind, let’s listen and discuss together this evening with a mind that cares about all other living beings, with an open heart that wants them to be happy and free of suffering. And let’s also try to make ourselves more capable of giving others happiness and protecting them from suffering, not by harming physical enemies but by showing the way to overcome anger and hatred and vengeance.

Who is the real enemy?

In Buddhism, we do talk about enemies. Who is the enemy? It’s ignorance. It’s the ignorance in our own minds, not in other people’s minds. It’s the ignorance in our own minds that misunderstands how things exist and invents this notion of a real, solid I that is more important than anybody else. Based on this big solid I then we care about what is mine, we divide between me and other, and of course, mine is more important than others. And nevermind that there are many more others than there are me. We believe in democracy, that majority wins. We believe in it. There’s one of me and there are countless minus one of others, so who is in the majority? The countless others minus one. They are the majority. But who do I care about the most? ME!

Through that partiality that we have, then we go about helping our friends because they bring us happiness, and harming our enemies so that they cannot harm us. People sometimes ask me, “Do you think humanity is advancing? Are we going up in terms of human development?” Well, yeah, we have artificial intelligence. I wonder if artificial intelligence knows how stupid war is. Or did we educate artificial intelligence so that it just carries on our own human stupidity? People also ask me, “What do you think about artificial intelligence? Will it help us or not?” I have no idea. I haven’t talked to it. 

But are we advancing as human beings? We have much better ways to hurt each other—much more efficient ways of killing. With a drone all you need to do is pretend you’re in kindergarten and launch it. It goes in the sky and kills someone, and you don’t even have to look at them or realize what you’ve done. But is the mind behind that killing any different than when you had to go and actually look into the face of another human being before you stabbed them? The mind is the same, isn’t it? The mind is the same. Why do we think we are so advanced now? Improving technology doesn’t mean that we’re more intelligent in what really matters in life. You can have all the machinery you want and be totally miserable. 

Nowadays you don’t even have to write your own term papers. AI can do all your work and graduate for you while you get your name on the certificate. Someday that computer is going to come and say, “Look, you stole my reputation!” [laughter] But you can have so much stuff and be totally miserable. Human beings can go to the moon. So what? We can’t even live together harmoniously on this planet yet we want to go to the moon. What’s the idea there? We’re going to move to the moon and set up our own little communities and only let people with our ideas in them. Or are we going to send all the people we don’t like to the moon and make them build their own homes? That’s how Australia got populated. [laughter] Isn’t it? The Brits sent all their criminals to Australia to get rid of them. I guess Australia is close to the moon. [laughter]

We human beings are so often our own worst enemy. And what makes us our own worst enemy is our own ignorance, our own clinging attachment that discriminates between friend and enemy and therefore is attached to our friends, favors our friends. We have attachment for physical objects and wealth: “I want this. I’m going to get social status by having this object or being seen with such and such a person, by having these kinds of pieces of paper on my wall. That’s how I’ll get status that will make me happy.”

You have all these pieces of paper on the wall saying you graduated for this and you won that, but what do you do? Do you wake up in the morning and sit and look at the wall all day and say, “I’m so happy”? Do you read your diplomas and your certificates over and over again. “So-and-so was the best behaved child in kindergarten”: “That was me! I’m so happy.” Then the next certificate: “So and so graduated with a PhD in quantum mathematics”: “Oh, that’s me!” And then I turn around and I scream at somebody who cuts me off on the highway. Or I scream at somebody else who took the parking space I wanted. Or nowadays, in modern day America, your neighbor’s child throws their toys on your lawn, and you just take out a gun and shoot the kid. Or your neighbor cuts down part of the apple tree that you consider “your” apple tree, so you just shoot him. It happens. We are so civilized, aren’t we?

Empathy creates change 

How do we change this? How do we have an attitude of compassion for others or an attitude of kindness? We can’t just sit there and say to ourselves, “Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.” You can sit there and say that until somebody tells you to stop repeating yourself and shut up, but that doesn’t make us kind. It doesn’t make us kind. What makes us kind is actually something that we were taught when we were really little. It’s called putting ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. It’s actually a very sophisticated Buddhist practice with the name of “Equalizing and Exchanging Self and Others.” That’s what you say if you want to sound important, but it’s just what we learned when we were three years old—or tried to learn because adults wanted us to learn. “Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes”: what does it feel like to be them? This is what we need to do. 

I was reading in the paper what some of the people are saying about the situation in the Middle East. One person wrote an opinion piece saying, “You know, the Israelis are not the ones who wanted the war. They didn’t start the war. It’s Hamas’ fault. And Biden says every country has the right to defend themselves.” We all have the Department of Defense because it’s always somebody else’s fault, isn’t it? It is until we really examine the situation and admit that we contributed to this. So, I was reading this one article, and the way this guy wrote it was like the Israelis are totally innocent, and they had nothing to do with this happening. And the Palestinians are one hundred percent evil. This was a grown human being writing an article. Who knows how much he got paid for it. The entire thing was just about helping your friends and harming your enemies. It was about how your enemy is one hundred percent wrong and your friend, your side, is one hundred percent right.

In Buddhism, we talk about dependence—that for any single object to exist, there has to be many causes and conditions, many parts, to come together. For any event to happen, there are so many causes and conditions. If we try to just take one cause and trace it back, we can’t get to any original cause because each cause has a cause has a cause. And for every event, there are so many different causes. So, whenever there’s conflict, everybody involved in it has contributed something. Some people maybe contributed more than others, but everybody has contributed something. But we like to see black and white. And we always think we’re on the side that is totally innocent, that didn’t contribute anything. This starts when you’re a kid. If you don’t have siblings, you don’t have the joy of learning this, but for those of us who have siblings, it was always our siblings’ fault, wasn’t it? Always. 

Me? I didn’t do anything. He started it. Then Mom says, I don’t care who started it. You’re the oldest. You should know better. “But! No, he started it and he not only started it but did this and this and this and this. He’s the guilty one. Punish him!” No, kiddo. I know your tricks. [laughter] And then you feel, “Oh, I got punished unjustly, unfairly. This was actually my sibling’s fault, but again, I got blamed—poor, sweet, innocent me.” 

Is that what happened to you as a kid? There it is, and then we grow up and do the same thing. And now we join together in groups, so we’re part of a group that then is better than another group and can attack the other group. And somehow we think that by fighting and killing each other we will live in peace. 

I grew up during the Vietnam war, and I’ve never checked my birthdate to see if I would have been drafted in the “lottery.” But some of my friends were getting drafted, and some were coming home in body bags and some were coming home on their own legs. And the government and those in favor of the war were saying, “We are fighting this war in order to live in peace. The communists are taking over Vietnam, and with the domino effect, they will go from Vietnam to Laos to Cambodia to Thailand to Singapore—even to Australia. It’s the domino effect. So, we have to stop the communists now. We just have to kill them and then there won’t be any communists and we can live in peace.”

This was during my teenage years and into my early twenties, and I was just saying, “I don’t get it. Why are we killing others in order to live in peace?” The two things didn’t fit together. Killing is violent. It’s destroying life. It’s causing pain. How can something like that bring the result of peace? It made no sense to me, and it still doesn’t make any sense to me. But then I encountered Buddhism talking about how we’re dependent on all other living beings, and how we are all the same in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering, and how therefore it’s important to cultivate a heart that cares about everybody and to work for the benefit of everybody as much as you can. When I heard teachings like that, I said, “Oh, that makes sense!” And what made even more sense was that they didn’t say, “Be kind, be kind, be kind.” They said, “Think about this. Then think about this. Then think about this and this and this.” There was a whole path of things to think about that would lead you to the conclusion of, “I want to be of benefit to others.”

Giving up wrong ideas

In the process of going from where we are now—thinking about me, I, my and mine—to thinking, “I want to benefit others,” we have to give up some of our wrong ideas. Now, you would think that giving up wrong ideas would be easy. They’re only wrong ideas. They aren’t made of steel and concrete. They are just ideas floating in a mind. They aren’t physical. Even your mind isn’t physical, so you would think it would be easy just to throw out one idea and substitute another one. But actually, it’s incredibly difficult to change our ideas. We believe in something and what we believe in becomes part of “who I am.” If we don’t believe in that anymore, we’re not going to be a member of this group. These people are not going to like us. We won’t be accepted. And we all want to be accepted and to belong in some group or another.

It’s scary to change what you think. But just look at the idea that harming our enemies will let us live in peace, that we just get rid of them. If you look at what’s going on with Hamas and Israel, both sides are saying the same thing. The Israeli side is saying, “No restraint. You go out and mobilize.” It was some incredible number of reserves they are mobilizing. And the idea is that you go out and you destroy the enemy. But Hamas is thinking the exact same way. So, Hamas is lobbing rockets and Israel is lobbing rockets. What’s been shocking in this whole thing is that Hamas has had so many rockets and so many guns and is so well organized. In the past, Hamas has been angry, so every so often they zoom some rockets over to Israel and then Israel zooms some rockets back. They do that for a while and then they stop. But now each side is saying, “We’re going to destroy you.”

Israel is saying, “Gaza will never be the same.” Hamas and other Arabs in some countries are shouting the slogan, “You’re our cannon; we’re the bullets,” and “Destroy Israel.” That’s what Hamas was trying to do, and that’s what was so shocking about the attack. They were sending actual people and fighting in Israel where before there were only rockets. You have a safe room in your house and there are places to shelter in town if you’re out shopping when the bombing happens. And sometimes there were attacks. They would blow up a bus or something like that, but they weren’t going into neighborhoods with their AK-47s or whatever it is and directly attacking whoever they come into contact with. That’s horrifying the Israelis. But are the Israelis thinking of what’s going on in Gaza after they drop the bombs there? 

Over sixty percent of people in Gaza are dependent on the United Nations relief for food, because the unemployment is so high because they can’t have regular commerce, because everything is blockaded. You can’t have free trade and so on. So, everybody is trying to help everybody or trying to harm everybody. And everybody is miserable. And every side is screaming, “We’re going to win. And we’re going to live happily ever after after we win!” Is that what happens after wars?

Is that what happens? It doesn’t matter if you win or lose in a war; everybody is suffering. Everybody has loved ones who are killed. My brother-in-law has family there, so they know people who have been killed or called up to service or who have been taken hostage. It’s a small country, so you are only one person away from knowing somebody who has been harmed. But in Gaza, the pain is just the same. You can see it in the pictures. The jets come zooming and the whole thing blows up. They used to do what was called “knocking on roofs,” which meant releasing small munitions to make noise and let people know they were going to bomb that place. That was called saving lives because people could get out. They would do that and then they would bomb the whole building. But in this war, they aren’t doing that. They aren’t “knocking on roofs” that way, so many of the people in Gaza are upset. They say, “You should warn us before you blow up our building.” Because the people who are getting harmed are not the people who are fighting. The people who are getting harmed are the families. The people who are fighting are the people who live in the underground system that Hamas has established so that they can move about freely without anybody knowing where they are or where all their weapons and so on are.

Conflict on a personal level

People aren’t even killing the exact people that are harming them. They are killing the families of those people. The whole thing is totally insane. I think everybody can understand that, but what happens when we bring it to a personal level and we start looking at the people we hold a grudge against? It’s not an all-out war. Maybe we don’t have a gun. We aren’t going to go kill them. But—we do everything we possibly can do to make them miserable, because we hate them. 

Why do we hate them? Nowadays every country has mixed races and mixed religions and so on. As soon as we say, “You’re different than me,” we think, “you’re dangerous.” It’s not, “You’re the same as me: you want to be happy and not suffer.” We could look at every single other living being with eyes of suspicion: “What are you going to do to me? Are you a friend or an enemy? Are you going to harm me? I don’t trust you. I’ve had bad experiences before. I better get ready and protect myself, and if you do anything to harm me, I’m going to retaliate, and I’m never going to speak to you again as long as I live.” And if you grow up in a country where there’s been warfare against different tribes or groups or religions or whatever it is, then that hatred is passed down from one generation to another. 

For example, Yugoslavia used to be one country. I don’t know how many countries it is now. There’s Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia—there are many different countries. It’s not a big area, but they manage to have many different nationalities. So, if their ancestors fought a war with people in that group then you grow up hearing the stories about how your ancestors fought this other group that was so bad, and the people there hear these stories about how they were so heroic and they were fighting against this group that was so bad. 

Basically, what adults do is they teach their children to hate. If you ask any parent, “Do you want to teach your child to hate,” they would not say yes. But that’s what they do, because they teach us and them, us and them. And it doesn’t matter what group you belong to because each group can be subdivided into many, many groups. If you look at my family, for example, there’s one ethnic group, but with the extended family, I don’t even know who they all are or even if they live in the same country. When I was a kid, there was a place where the family went for summer vacation, and I was taught as a child that you do not talk to the people who live in that apartment. I said, “Why? I thought they were our relatives.” And the answer I got was, “Just don’t talk to them. They’re bad people.” I thought that was kind of strange because I thought they were family. Something happened on the level of my grandparents’ generation. I have no idea what actually happened, but they didn’t talk to each other. Then I watched my parents’ generation seeing the example of their parents not liking their siblings, so through all sorts of things that happen in families, they also started to fight. They divided into different factions. I saw that with my aunts and uncles who I really loved as a kid, this one didn’t speak to that one and that one didn’t speak to this one. And when we would go visit them, I would hear my parents talking badly about their own siblings. And what are they doing? They are setting the example for my generation to do the same thing. So, what happens? I look at my cousins, and this one doesn’t speak to that one and that one doesn’t speak to this one. It’s just amazing.

I wonder if they’re even aware they are modeling that and teaching that to their own children. Does anybody really know why this one doesn’t speak to that one? I think nobody remembers the why. Everybody just remembers that you’re supposed to hate them because they’re bad. I don’t know what happened in my grandparents’ generation. I don’t know why my parents’ generation, my dear aunts and uncles, don’t speak to each other. I don’t know what happened. And then with my cousins, I can’t even keep track of all of that. 

What I’m getting at is that all of this discord and all of the pain from the discord comes because we’re thinking of ourselves as foremost and not doing the simple thing of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. It would be so easy in the Israel-Hamas conflict if people would put themselves in each other’s shoes, because the same thing is happening to both sides. They are both getting bombed. The Israelis have more defenses than the Palestinians have because the Palestinians are two million people squashed in a small space without the bunkers the Israelis have, but if you look at the pictures of what’s going on on both sides, it’s the same. I really like when the news agencies show the pictures side-by-side. You can see that with any bombed out building, on whichever side or in whatever place, you can’t tell what country it’s in unless there is some insignia. If it’s just the rubble, all bombed out buildings look exactly the same. You can’t even tell what country. The only thing that makes you able to tell is when you see the dresses that the people in these pictures are wearing. The expressions on their faces are the same! Everybody is either sobbing and screaming out of horror and sorrow or they are angry.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? The bombed out buildings are the same, the faces of the people are the same—the experiences are the same. The only thing that’s different is the kind of clothes you’re wearing. Except now they wear jeans in Israel and Gaza, and in some pictures you aren’t even sure which ones they are because the jeans look the same. And both sides are living in terror, in fear, in grief and sorrow. Again, we’re coming to the fact that all sentient beings are the same.

All beings are the same

What’s the difference between a mother on this side and a mother on that side, both sobbing because their children have been killed? There’s no difference—except for when we create ideas, like “They’re evil.” Both sides are kind of doing the same thing in terms of the rockets. Hamas sent actual soldiers, terrorists—whatever you call them—they sent people into Israeli territory, and now the Israelis are planning to do the same except they have more firepower.

In Israel, everybody—men and women alike—go into the army. One of my friends was telling me that when he was in the army, some years ago there was another battle, and they had to go into Gaza and go door-to-door into people’s homes to see if there were terrorists there. He was telling me that’s what you have to do. You have to kick in the door and stomp in and scream and make the people afraid. You have to ask, “Where’s the terrorist? Where’s this and where’s that?”  And then you have to go through their houses and look for the people. Most of the time you don’t find anybody, so you leave, and of course everybody in the house is in shock. He didn’t enjoy doing that; that was not fun. He didn’t like being in the army. Can you imagine having to go into other people’s homes and causing them that much pain and fear?

We have to live with our actions

Some people might say, “Yes, it’s so good. I’m so powerful. I’m protecting my country, and I have power, and I’m smashing these enemies.” But you know, we all have to live with ourselves afterwards, don’t we? That’s the thing: when we go to sleep at night, we’re with ourselves, and we have to be able to make sense of our actions. So, everybody on the outside can call us “heroes,” and everybody can tell us we’re right, but inside, when we harm others, I don’t think that there’s a very good feeling that remains. Some people may cover it up. We have one magnificent example of that in this country. I won’t name who. [laughter] This person delights in causing strife and fear and hatred. Maybe I’m naive, but I still think somewhere in that person’s heart they don’t feel good about what they’re doing.

What other people think of us doesn’t really matter because we’re the ones that have to live with ourselves. Whether we’re part of a group that’s in conflict or whether we’re fighting with a sibling or somebody who used to be our best friend or a colleague that we’re working with, it’s the same dynamics, and it’s the same mental state. It’s the same outcome. The degrees and methods may vary, but the playbook, as they say, is the same. It doesn’t make much sense to say, “I’m so heroic. I killed the enemy.”

I can tell that the first question later is going to be, “Don’t you think it’s good that the Allies fought and conquered the Nazis? Are you going to say that the Nazis and the Allies are the same and that the Nazis should have won world war II?” No, I’m not going to say that. But I will tell you what my teacher said when he was talking about the kindness of sentient beings and how everybody has been kind in one way or another. We all said of our favorite three—Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—“They’re all equal? They are all equally kind sentient beings? Look what they’ve done!” And Lama called everybody dear and his English wasn’t so good, so he would look at us and say, “They means well, dear.” And we were going, “Hitler meant well? Mao Tse-tung meant well? Stalin meant well? These people killed millions of people. How can we say they meant well?”  

Well, basically, they were trying to be happy, but they don’t know what the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering are. So, they just followed their ideas and emotions and said, “If I destroy the people who seem to be harming me then I’ll live in peace.” But the real enemy is our own ignorance, anger and attachment. That doesn’t mean we should kill ourselves. It means that we should do something with our ignorance, anger and attachment. It means we need to banish those mental states by applying the antidotes to those mental states. Otherise, if you put us in a situation like Hitler, Stalin—whoever—we might even act the same way. Some of you listening to the talk are probably too young to remember the Rodney King episode.

Rodney King was an African-American citizen who was driving on the highway. I don’t know what he did or how this started, but as with most things, how it started doesn’t even matter at the end of the game. The police were chasing him all through the Los Angeles highways, and at one point they stopped the car or his car crashed or something, so they dragged him out, and the police beat him to a pulp. After that, there was so much discord in Los Angeles because the African-Americans said, “You killed one of ours,” and the African-American neighborhood was near the Korean neighborhood which was near the white neighborhood, and there was all this racial stuff going back and forth. The Koreans owned the grocery stores and the people from this group were burning the Korean grocery stores, and the people from that group were doing other harmful things. It was just chaos in Los Angeles. Everybody got involved because of this one thing.

I was in my early twenties or late teens—younger than I am now, which is very young. [laughter] But I thought that if I had been raised like Rodney King, I would have done what he did, which was to try and escape the police. If I had been raised like the white cops, I would have acted like they did, which was to chase somebody down. If I had been raised like the Koreans, I would have wanted to protect my property and my store, and I would have been mad at the people who broke in and destroyed it. I realized that I could have been a person in any of those three groups. 

Have you ever thought like that, that you could have been born in a different place with a different family and a different race, religion and nationality? Have you ever thought that you would have done what the people in those countries did, and that you probably would have thought like them? That doesn’t mean that everyone thinks that way. For example, in Russia there are many Russians who don’t agree with the war. But if we had been born in any of those places, we would have had that conditioning growing up, and we would have heard certain things and probably acted and thought in a certain way because of it. So, are we better than anybody else? I don’t think so.

Applying the antidotes

Again, the only way for us to live in peace is for each of us on a personal level to work with our clinging attachment, our anger and resentment, and our ignorance. When I was younger I thought, “It should be very easy to make the world peaceful. Everybody should just realize it’s in their own benefit to live in harmony with others.” And then I don’t know how it happened, but there were certain people that disturbed me and picked on me and did mean things to me and hurt my feelings. “It’s all their fault!” And then I encountered the Buddhist teachings, and I realized that I’m just like everybody else. I help my friends and harm my enemies. Help my friends, harm my enemies. The real enemy is ignorance, anger, attachment. That enemy I let go skipping along in the daisies. 

If I’m angry, I am right. “That person is bad and look what they did.” And I have all my friends who agree with me, so I must be right because all my friends agree with me. That’s why they’re my friends: because they agree with me that I’m right and that person is wrong. If they didn’t agree with me, they wouldn’t be my friends anymore. So, look at my criteria for friendship: you have to agree with me; you have to side with me. It doesn’t matter what I believe; you have to reinforce me. Otherwise, you won’t be my friend anymore. This is the way ordinary people think.

If you are a spiritual practitioner, when somebody points out to you that you have some faults or that you’ve made some mistakes, you say, “Thank you very much for telling me that.” So then we have to ask ourselves, “Are we spiritual practitioners or are we just like everybody else?” Are we making a new mudra of,  “It’s their fault, not my fault” and pointing both fingers at everyone else? Are we thinking, “I didn’t do anything. I’m sweet and innocent. They are causing me harm. I didn’t cause harm. Well, I didn’t cause a great deal of harm; I just needed to make my point. My point wasn’t very bad, but when they act like that with somebody else, then for their own benefit—with compassion—I should tell them that they started it all and they are mean idiots!”

I’m always the innocent one. It’s always somebody else’s fault. I’m not saying to blame ourselves. The antidote isn’t to say, “Oh, it’s my fault. Everything’s my fault. I have so much ignorance, anger and hatred. I’m such a bad person.” Yeah, yeah, yeah: that’s just another way of making ourselves important. Instead of being the best one, we are the worst one. Somehow we stand out from everybody else, and we’re so powerful that we can make everything go wrong. No, I’m not saying that’s the antidote. 
There are many antidotes to anger. You can find many good antidotes in Working with Anger and Healing Anger. But when we get angry, one thing we can do is just stop and say, “How does this look from the other person’s viewpoint?” We might assume that we know what they felt and we know their motivation, but did we ask them? No, but we can read other people’s minds, right? [laughter] Yeah, right. So, just ask yourself, “How does this situation look from someone else’s viewpoint,” instead of being so stuck in your own viewpoint. We get stuck, don’t we? It’s fascinating what you discover when you stop and ask yourself, “What does this situation look like from the other person’s viewpoint?”

Differing perspectives

One of my big ah-ha moments came about after I met Buddhism, not when I was a teenager. When you’re a teenager you think your parents are trying to control you. When you’re sixteen, you are almost omniscient, and you can make your own decisions. You know how to live your life. You don’t need your parents for anything—except to give you some money and to do the laundry when you go visit them. Aside from that, you don’t need them. You’re an independent adult. Isn’t that how we all thought? “My parents are trying to control me. They aren’t seeing that I’m an intelligent adult and should be able to make my own decisions.” Your parents are so controlling. They tell you what time to be home. They don’t give you as much money as you want. They make you do your own laundry sometimes. They tell you you’re being selfish. “No! Me, selfish? No!”  

But actually, it’s the people who point these things out to us who are showing us what we need to work on. It doesn’t mean every criticism we received is true. We have to have some wisdom in our own mind to differentiate what is true and what isn’t, because very often people are just like us and exaggerating and not seeing things correctly. But it was shocking for me when I got older to realize that what I thought was a conflict over my independence, from my parents’ eyes, it looked like the conflict was over my safety. They wanted me to be safe, and they asserted stipulations to help me make good decisions. I didn’t even see that this was them caring about me. I saw it as them trying to control me. It’s really interesting when we can really look at the situation from somebody else’s viewpoint and see what the conflict even looks like. My parents and I were missing each other. We were fighting over different things. 

If you study conflict meditation, they always teach you to ask what it is that the different parties actually want. They give the very simple example of two people who are fighting over an orange. They are furious at each other because this one is taking the orange but the other one thinks it’s their orange. They are fighting over the orange and each is claiming, “It’s mine, and I’m going to have it.” But if you ask this party why they want the orange, they say they want to make orange juice. The other party says they want the orange to take the peel and grind it up and put it in a cake they are baking. So, actually, if they talked about their conflict, they would realize that the same orange could make both of them happy at the same time. They could take the orange and give the pulp with the juice to this person and give the peel to that person. And then everybody would get what they wanted. They don’t need to fight over the orange. How many conflicts are we in when if we actually communicated, we could find a solution that is amenable to everybody? 

Also, in conflicts, you may start fighting over a material thing but then actually the topic of the conflict changes to how you are communicating. It may originally start with who wants the orange or who deserves the orange, but then this person gets really mad and says, “You’re always selfish and taking everything I want,” and the other person says, “No, you are always taking everything, and you won’t even share it!” And then the conflict is no longer about the orange. Nobody really cares about the orange. Now they are fighting over who is selfish, or they will fight over who is not listening to the other person and who is slamming doors and who is throwing things. They are fighting over the method of communication; everybody has forgotten the actual topic of the conflict.

If we took some time out to really examine that, we might discover that we can meet everybody’s needs. But we all have to change our minds, and that’s the difficult part. 

Questions & Answers

Audience: Why are all people who believe in Buddhism bald? [laughter]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Well, first of all, not all Buddhists are bald. Some of them have hair. But as part of being a monastic, we have our own uniform and we shave our heads. Why? It symbolizes giving up anger, ignorance and clinging attachment. It especially symbolizes attachment because our hair is a big part of our attachment, isn’t it? How much time and money do you spend fussing over your hair so that you look good? You try it. You keep track in one week of how much time you spend washing, drying, combing and dying your hair. How much time do you spend trying to get hair if you don’t have any? How much money do you spend on products for your hair? How much angst do you go through because you’re having a bad hair day? 

When I was young, you were supposed to have straight, blonde hair. That’s what all the cool kids had. What did I have? I had curly, dark hair. Who is going to like me with curly, dark hair? Do you remember being a teeanger? I know some of you just skipped over that part of your life, but how much angst do we go through for our hair? Look at the celebrities. You watch any of these fancy gala awards ceremonies, and everybody is dressed up. It’s like halloween. [laughter] You look at the way some of the people comb their hair, and it’s like halloween. Some people have different colors and different things stuck in it. They spend the whole day getting dressed and doing their hair, and they probably paid other people a fortune to make these outrageous clothes that they wear only once and to do their hair and their makeup. And it’s not just the women; it’s the men, too. The men are showing up in flowy, fluffy capes and things, too, with all these bright colors. So, all that money was spent just to look good so that you get written up in a newspaper and somebody takes a picture of you standing on a red carpet. Why a red carpet? I don’t know. What’s wrong with a green or yellow carpet? No, it has to be a red carpet. [laughter]

Audience: That’s why we’re bald. [laughter]

VTC: Exactly! That’s why we’re bald. [laughter] We’re trying to get rid of all this attachment and all this nonsense that you go through. By the way, Venerable, your hair is a little bit long, and it’s more gray on this side than it is on that side. Is that intentional or are you dying your hair. You dyed it. [laughter]

Audience: I can relate to this conversation. [laughter]

VTC: Don’t you want me to talk about why we all look old? [laughter] 

Audience: Is there true evil in the world? And it’s so hard to put yourself in the shoes of people who are so different or so evil, so how do you deal with that?

VTC: What does “real evil” mean? Tell me what it means. Otherwise, I can’t answer the question. Does “real evil” mean that there’s a human being and every single action they do is harmful to others? Is that what evil means? But what about if somebody likes what they did? What does “evil” mean? Does it mean that when you do this action is always bad? In any situation, independent of the situation and the people involved, it’s bad? What does pure evil mean? Think about that. And then the second part, why is it so hard to change shoes with people who are so different, is because our minds are trained to look at differences. This is what an education means. What do you learn from Kindergarten? A, B, C, D: those are different. Yellow, purple, blue: those are different. You have to be able to tell them apart. Round, square, oblong: you have to be able to discriminate that. Tall and short: what’s the difference? This is what a lot of our education is about: learning to discern different objects. The discerning is not the problem. If you’re hungry but you can’t discern the difference between things, you might go to the gas tank instead of the refrigerator. That’s not a good idea. 

Discerning is not the problem. It’s when we think that these objects are inherently different and one is good and one is bad. One is on my side and one is dangerous. As soon as the I gets involved—the big I: me, I, my, mine—then our criticism is right there. Everything that involves me is more important than everything that involves everybody else. And so this is something that we have to work to undo. I think all religions talk about things like, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Be kind to others.” 

In Sufism, you’re not allowed to own something that is better than what your neighbor owns. You are not allowed to have something that would show that you are wealthier than your neighbor. Isn’t that amazing? You’re not allowed to have something that shows you are wealthier than your neighbor. What an economy that would be if we practiced that. But when we always favor ME and disfavor others, then we make things very complicated because we see differences; we don’t see commonalities. One of the things in our Buddhist practice that we really emphasize is seeing the commonality between all sentient beings. And it’s not just all human beings—even the grasshoppers, the spiders, the leeches, the fleas. All beings want to be happy and they don’t want to suffer. So, if we train our mind to see that, that’s what we will see. And then we feel accordingly: “Oh, they are just like me. They don’t want to suffer. They want to be happy.”

Audience: In a conflict, you can only control your end of the “putting yourself in other people’s shoes” technique. What do you do to defuse the conflict when the other party refuses to see outside their own perspective?

VTC: They always do because they don’t see our point of view. We’re open minded; we’re considerate. Those people are not seeing our point of view. I have a friend who teaches mediation, and I went to one of his courses one time. He was talking to the group, and he asked, “How many of you are in a conflict and are the person who is flexible and wants to resolve it.” everybody raised their hand. He then asked, “And how many of you are in this conflict with somebody who is attached to their own opinion and won’t listen?” Again, everybody raised their hands. My friend the meditator said, “This is so interesting. Every course I teach on mediation, I get all the cooperative, peaceful people who tell the truth and are understanding. It’s never the people who lie and take advantage of others that come to my courses. Isn’t that interesting?” 

We’re always the one who is so willing to compromise and settle, who is open-minded. They are always the closed minded ones. But it’s interesting when you observe your own mind when you’re really angry or when you feel really threatened. Look at the feeling in your mind of “That person did this or is going to do this.” Is there any doubt in your mind at that moment that the other person is wrong? No. Is there any question in your mind that you are right? No. “Of course I’m right.” And the solution is: “The other person has to change.” Every conflict is like that: “I’m right. You’re wrong. You have to change.” And that’s exactly what the other party is saying. “I’m right. You’re wrong. You have to change.” So, if we look at our own mind when we get into something, when we’re dug in, do we listen to anything that doesn’t agree with us? 

Psychologists have this expression called a “refractory period.” This means that when you are in a certain negative emotional state, for a certain period of time you cannot hear anything that doesn’t agree with your view. If we look, when we’re angry, that’s how we are. We can’t hear anything else. If somebody tries to tell us what’s going on for the other person, we interrupt and we say, “Yes, but—” It’s amazing if you look at your own mind how much you learn about how other people’s minds work. It’s amazing.


How about for closing, let’s try and come back to what we started out with, which is that everybody wants happiness and nobody wants to suffer. Let’s try for a couple of minutes to think of individuals you don’t like or political parties or people in other countries or whatever it is that you don’t like, that you think are bad or evil. Try as you think of them to keep saying, “They want to be happy. They don’t want to suffer. They don’t know what the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering are.” Start to see everybody like that and see if you are feeling changes. Let’s do that for a couple of minutes. 

And then look at everybody as having some kindness in their heart. Because everybody treats certain beings with kindness. Everybody has kindness in their own heart. It may not be shown toward us; it may be shown towards somebody else. But their having kindness is there. So, try to see everybody as having kindness in their heart, including yourself. And then want to share that kindness. 

And then let’s rejoice that we were able to spend the evening thinking about something worthwhile. Let’s rejoice that each of us, as individuals and as a group, really started to change our own mind by seeing that our own anger is the problem and the antidote is having a kind heart and seeing kindness in others. Everybody has kindness, just as we have kindness. Let’s dedicate the positive energy that we all created this evening from stretching our minds and our hearts in this way. This is our contribution to peace.

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.

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