Overcoming unwholesome states
Overcoming unwholesome states
- Taking refuge: Knowing what path we are following and why
- Birth, aging, sickness and death
- Death does not have to be a negative experiece
- Transforming adversity into the path to awakening
- The antidotes to arrogance
- Applying antidotes to anger
- Reflecting on impermanence to counteract attachment
Overcoming unwholesome states (download)
It’s very good to be with all of you again. I’ve been coming to Buddhist Fellowship for many, many, many years starting back in the 1980s when I lived here. It’s very good to see your community develop over time. Today, we’re going to talk about antidotes to unwholesome states. That’s a nice way of putting it. What it really means is how to stop being a jerk. [laughter] And how to calm your mind when your mind is all over the place. So, we want to start with taking refuge and generating our motivation of bodhicitta, the incredibly noble mind of seeking to attain full awakening for the benefit of all sentient beings.
We take refuge so that we know what path we’re following, so that we’re very clear on that. And we generate bodhicitta to know why we’re following that path. This way we’re clear on whose guidance we’re following. We’re not being fickle: “Today, I’m a Buddhist; tomorrow I’m a Sufi; the day after that I’m a Muslim; the day after that I do crystals. I don’t really know what I follow or believe in.” We don’t really want to be like that. When we take refuge, we’re very clear, and that clarity comes from hearing the Buddha’s teachings, thinking about them, applying logic and reasoning to them, trying them out ourselves and then being convinced that they make sense and that through our own experience we can see improvement in the state of our mind.
That doesn’t mean we’re going to be a buddha by next Tuesday: “Oh yes, I see wonderful improvement. I came in here on Sunday and by Tuesday I’m a buddha, yeah!” No, it doesn’t work like that. And why are we following this path? It’s not because we’re wanting to be famous. It’s not because we want to do something mystical or magical or far-out. It’s because we sincerely care for the welfare of all sentient beings, not just ourselves, and we want all living beings to attain awakening and become buddhas. That’s a very lofty inspiration, but when we have that kind of mind then we’re able to overcome a lot of difficulties in our practice.
When we have the aspiration to work for the benefit of all beings and to develop our highest potential so that we can do that, can you think of anything to criticize about that motivation? If I said, “I’m practicing this path so I can be a teacher and have lots of followers bowing to me,” then you could complain about that motivation, couldn’t you? But if my motivation is sincerely to be of benefit to all sentient beings, there’s nothing to complain about. It may be difficult to attain full awakening but difficulty doesn’t matter if we’re doing something worthwhile. Then we just keep on that path and we go there; we don’t get waylaid or discouraged. Sometimes some discouragement may come but then we remember what our goal is, why we’re doing this. That revitalizes our practice.
Dealing with obstacles
Also, when we encounter obstacles in our life—sickness, financial problems, people not liking you and talking behind your back—when you’re aiming for full awakening for all sentient beings, are you going to let small things like that bum you out and make you depressed? Somebody criticizes me—so what? As ordinary beings, when somebody criticizes me: “I’m devastated. And they’re talking behind my back and running my reputation—I’m so unhappy!”
But if you are sincerely aiming to become a buddha to benefit all beings, you think, “Okay, some people criticize me. It’s a free world. They can have their own opinion.” Do you give permission for people to have their own opinion about you? Or do you think, “No, everyone must think I’m holy; they must praise me.” Is that going to work? That’s not going to work. This bodhicitta gives incredible mental strength. If you get sick you’re still aiming for full awakening, and you know that sickness is part of samsara. Birth, again, sickness and death: we’ve done the birth part, so what happens after that? Sickness. That’s part of samsara. Is there anyone here who has never been sick, ever? It’s part of our life, so you get sick. Why freak out? You don’t feel well for a few days, that’s okay. You lie in bed. You take medicine. You rest. You get over it. You get well. Life goes on. It isn’t like, “Oh, I’ve got Covid—ahhh! I’m dying!” [laughter] We don’t have to react like that. I got Covid in September, and it was like a really bad cold that lasted some time. I got well. And again, we know that’s going to happen.
Also, why let ourselves get bummed out about aging? You can grow fantastic and beautiful gray hair, and your face is adorned with wrinkles that young people don’t have. Those poor young people are deprived of wrinkles! [laughter] They have to get some life experience to have wrinkles. Then you can’t walk as well because you have arthritis. Oh, what a delightful thing, arthritis: now you don’t have to pick up anything off the floor. Everyone else will do it for you because you can’t bend down. And they don’t complain. When you’re young and ask them for help they grumble, but when you have arthritis, they just help you. There are benefits to aging.
And sometimes young people figure out that when you’re old you’ve actually learned something about life and that you have the ability to give some wise advice. Old people recognize that about each other. Young people just think you don’t know how to work email, you don’t know how to do a text message, you don’t know what a bot is. What’s a bot? And ChatGPT? [laughter] What’s the GPT for? Can’t you make it shorter? Older people are very practical; the GPT just takes too long to say, and you can’t remember it. [laughter]
Once in awhile young people figure out that older people know something. Like I said, that’s a big revelation. When I was sixteen I thought I was almost omniscient. I certainly knew much more than my parents. “My parents? They don’t know how to think correctly. They think that because I”m sixteen I don’t know how to take care of myself. I know how to take care of myself. Leave me alone, Mom and Dad! Give me the car keys but don’t tell me what time to be home! [laughter] And if you want to see me, have the washing machine ready because I’m coming to see you and to do my washing. If you don’t have a machine, why am I coming to see you?” That’s what you think when you’re young. When you’re older you go see someone because you care about them.
Then, of course, there’s death. Birth, aging, sickness and then death: the thing we are most terrified of. Young we think, “It’s not going to happen to me. It only happens to old people, and only to old people I don’t know or care about. It doesn’t happen to my family members. And death is not going to happen to me. I’m going to conquer death. The scientists will finally discover some way to keep this impermanent, constantly decaying body alive forever.” Do you want to live forever in a constantly decaying body? Well, we are living in that. We have a precious human life, and we want to preserve it as long as we can to practice the Dharma, but when death comes, why freak out? As soon as you are born, you know you’re going to die.
When you think about it, in samsara we have died countless times. Isn’t that amazing? We have had beginningless lifetimes, so we have died countless times. We’ve done it before. Why freak out? Why freak out? Maybe we think, “Well, I feel guilty about some things I’ve done.” When you aren’t at peace in your own mind with your actions and your ethical conduct then you freak out at the time of death. But if you’re at peace with yourself, even if you’ve made mistakes in your life. You’ve done purification practice—you’ve regretted those mistakes, you’ve made amends, you’ve made a determination not to do them again, and you’ve done some virtuous actions—so then you have learned from your mistakes and can go on without feeling guilty or being weighed down by feeling, “Oh, look what I’ve done.”
The picnic of life
They say if we use our precious human life really well—if we create a lot of merit, really listen to teachings, and meditate on the Dharma—then time is like going on a picnic. If you go on a picnic you’re happy, so it’s like going on a picnic. I’m going to tell you a story about death and going on a picnic. I was living in Dharamsala at the time in India, and right below where I was living there were some mud huts where some older monks lived and did their practice. One day one of them fell down and started hemorrhaging inside, so blood was coming out of his lower orifices. Above where the monks were staying, there was a Western Retreat Center, so one of the Western women was a nurse who came down to help him. He was in his room bleeding profusely, and there was a plastic sheet below him to catch the blood and some of his insides. It was my job to take the plastic sheet with the blood and his insides on it and throw that over the side of the mountain and then bring the plastic sheet back in to put under him.
He wanted his body placed in certain positions having to do with the Buddha figure he had been meditating on, so the nurse put his body in those positions. His other friends in the row of mud huts were out at the time this happened, and when they came back, they immediately started doing pujas. Pujas aren’t just singing or ringing bells and playing drums; they’re actual meditation you do. While you are chanting you are visualizing and thinking about what you are seeing. They started doing pujas and meditating very strongly for their friend because it was clear he was dying. When he passed away, one of the meditators went in the room and checked for signs of his good or bad rebirth. They say that if the heat leaves the body from the lower part of the legs that doesn’t bode well for the next life, but if the heat leaves the body from the head that’s a sign the person will have a good rebirth.
This person went in and checked it out, and he came back smiling even though his friend had just died. He said, “He’s going to have a good rebirth. The signs were there.” His friends continued to do the practice. Nobody was sobbing. Nobody was crying or saying, “Oh, he died! I should have been able to prevent him from dying!” Even the Buddha can’t do that, so how could we prevent somebody from dying? His friends were relaxed, and the monk was relaxed as he was dying. It was like going on a picnic because he had spent most of his life in Dharma practice. It was quite something for me to see people react to death like that.
Meanwhile, when the Westerners living in the Retreat Center above them heard he was sick, they jumped in their jeep and drove down the hill for a doctor. Then they frantically drove back up the hill and rushed the doctor into the room of the monk who was dying. And the doctor examined him and said, “He’s dying.” [laughter] The Westerners said, “Oh no! Isn’t there something you can do? We should be able to prevent this! How can you let him die?” It was so interesting for me to see that if you’ve trained your mind well in the Dharma, death is a natural part of life, and you can meditate when you’re dying. And your friends can meditate for you when you’re dying. If your mind is not steeped in the Dharma then you’re like the people going crazy driving up and down the hill with the doctor and crying. My whole point here is if we have a clean, clear motivation to become buddhas for the benefit of all living beings then no matter what we go through, we’re able to maintain our focus and have a positive mind.
There’s even a way in Dharma practice to transform adversity into the path. Because adversity is going to come to us. Anybody here never have any problems? We’ve all had problems, right? If we’re skilled in the Dharma, we know how to look at those problems so that we transform them into the path to awakening. That’s something I want to talk about when we get to our topic. I’m giving quite a long introduction. [laughter] Maybe I better tell you now because we won’t get to our topic. [laughter] I did this last night, too; I started an introduction, and it ended after an hour and a half, and we dedicated the merit. [laughter]
Changing our view of suffering
This is actually the topic of our talk: how to deal with unwholesome states. Let’s give an example of when you’re suffering. When you’re suffering, what is your mental state usually? Are you happy? No. Are you angry? Yes. Is anger a wholesome, virtuous mental state? No. Do you want to continue having it? No. Then what do you do? Let’s say you’re sick, and you’re angry. It’s somebody else’s fault: “That person on the MRT sneezed. I wish I could recognize him because he’s why I got sick, and I want to go and sneeze on him and get my revenge! [laughter] How dare he do that to me!” That’s not very virtuous, is it? So, how do you deal with anger when you don’t feel well?
One way is to relate this to karma. Why am I sick? Well, in a previous life probably or maybe in this life, I harmed somebody else’s body. Maybe I got in a fight and slapped somebody or did something to physically harm somebody else. Maybe I was a soldier and I harmed somebody else’s body intentionally. That action that I did in my previous life left a karmic seed on my mindstream, and now that karmic seed is ripening because of the cooperative conditions: the guy sneezing on me and me having a body that is prone to sickness. So, I got sick. It’s due to causes and conditions.
Nobody was out to harm me. This is the result of my own negative actions. If I’m the one who created the primary cause for my being sick by harming somebody else’s body in a previous life then why am I angry? It doesn’t make any sense to be angry because it’s the karma that I myself created. There’s nobody to be angry at. If you think like that then you just let go of the anger, and you can accept that you’re sick. And then you remember, “Oh yes, sickness is part of being in samsara. Why am I in samsara? The Buddha is out of samsara, so why am I not? Countless eons ago, the Buddha before he became a buddha was just an ordinary being, and maybe he and I hung out at the mall together and sat down and had dinner and rode on the cable cars together. Maybe I was good friends with the mental continuum of the Buddha. So, why is he a buddha and I’m still here in a body that gets sick?”
Well, between then and now, that person who was a buddha practiced the Dharma, realized the nature of reality, used that realization to purify his mind, generated the bodhicitta—the aspiration to become a buddha to benefit all beings—created a lot of merit and became a buddha. Why am I not a buddha? I just kept going to the mall. I didn’t do anything with any of my lives between then and now. I went to the mall. I went out to eat. I played video games. I didn’t do anything useful in any of those lifetimes. Maybe I drank some. I was an alcoholic one lifetime. [laughter] That’s why I’m not a buddha and why I’m still prone to getting sick. So, what am I mad at? If I don’t like the situation of getting sick then I need to stop creating the cause for it and harming other living beings’ bodies.
What does that mean? It means I don’t go out and pick out live animals and have the cook drop them in boiling water so that I can have dinner. You might think, “I have to give up eating seafood! Seafood is my favorite! Buddhism is so difficult.That’s torturous. How can I become a buddha with this kind of burden on me to give up seafood?” Well, what’s more difficult: eating somebody else’s body for lunch and not becoming a buddha, or giving up eating somebody else’s body for lunch and using that time to create virtue and practice the Dharma? What’s more worthwhile? Is it really that hard to give up eating meat and fish? Is it really that tortuous?
I became a vegetarian before I even knew about Buddhism. I was traveling in Europe, and we were in Germany and went to the market and got some stuff called “sausage.” When we cut it open all this blood came out. I found out later it was called “blood sausage” for a reason. It dawned on me that when I’m eating meat, I’m eating somebody else’s body. Then I thought, “Would I give up my life for somebody else’s lunch?” What was the answer? No. I want to live. I don’t want to give up my body for somebody else’s lunch. Well, either does that cow. Either does the “seafood.” We need to stop calling them “seafood.” There’s fish and lobsters and crabs. We don’t have to see them as “seafood.”
I never asked that lamb, “Did you want to die so I can have lunch.” I never asked. I just assumed I could go and eat somebody else’s body, no problem. When I really thought about it, though, I realized that’s not fair. If I don’t want to give up my body for somebody else’s lunch, why would they want to give up their body for me? That kind of did it for me. When I told my parents, my mother said, “What am I going to cook for you?” As if there’s nothing else to cook but meat and fish and chicken. I just said, ‘There’s lots of stuff to eat besides that, and you can eat a balanced diet.” And nowadays, not only do we save lives, but if you care about climate change, one huge cause of releasing methane into the air—a huge pollutant—is raising livestock. The livestock eat and they poop, and the poop gives off methane. So, if we want to live in a clean environment and we want to be kind to the next generation who comes to live here, we should stop creating the cause for more greenhouse gasses.
What the Buddha taught relates very much to our life and to current issues in society. What the Buddha taught is not something old fashioned, and it’s not something that has nothing to do with our lives. It has everything to do with our lives: how we live, what decisions we make.
Maybe now we should say refuge and generate our motivation. [laughter] When we do these verses, imagine in the space in front of you the Buddha with his body of golden light surrounded by all the other buddhas, bodhisattvas, arhats and holy beings, and they are looking at you with compassion and complete acceptance. There is no judgment at all. You know when the Buddha is looking at you with compassion and acceptance that you are safe. The Buddha cares more about helping you become enlightened than he cares about his own welfare. And then imagine not only that the Buddha and the holy beings are in the space in front of you, but you are also surrounded by all sentient beings. All of them want happiness and don’t want suffering. They are totally equal in that regard. When we take refuge and generate bodhicitta, we are leading all those sentient beings who don’t know the path to happiness to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. And we’re leading them to generate kindness, love and compassion for all beings. Let’s have a little bit of silent meditation, and maybe think about what we just talked about.
Cultivating our motivation
Let’s think that we’re going to listen and share the Dharma together this morning so that we can learn different skills, so that we can learn compassion, so that we can learn how to recognize the nature of reality. And we want to do this not so that we will attain nirvana for ourselves only, but so that we will become the most compassionate, most wise, and most skillful and powerful in leading other living beings to practice the Dharma and attain buddhahood. Let’s have that be our motivation for sharing the Dharma this morning.
Afflictions arise every day
In the book Guided Buddhist Meditations, there is a section on page 150 called “Antidotes to the Afflictions.” When the Buddha described the world from the viewpoint of having a virtuous mind, he talked about how to deal with our afflictions. Affliction means any kind of mental state or mental factor that disturbs the mind, any kind of wrong view that if we follow it will lead us on bad paths, to make bad decisions. Why are we unhappy? The problem is the afflictions, the klesa. This is our chief enemy. The klesa are rooted in ignorance and our self-centered thought. Those are the two Commanders, and then the afflictions are the army that go out and attack our mind. So, the Buddha talked about how to subdue these, because we have mental afflictions all day long. Do you ever go one day without getting upset about something?
I don’t mean hysterically upset, but can you go one day without getting irritated or frustrated or angry? No, it’s there every day. Do you go one day without being greedy, without being attached to something? It comes up in so many ways. There’s a buffet lunch, and it’s like, “Well, I want to be early in the line, not just so I can eat first but so I can take more. If I come later in the line then other people will have eaten, and I’ll just get a few little things.” If we’re in the front we know that other people have to eat, but we don’t care. We’re going to take as much as we want. Do you do that? [laughter] “No, but I’m always at the end of the line of people who do! They do that. I don’t.” [laughter]
How about jealousy? Do you get jealous of other people? It happens every day. Somebody is better looking or more artistic; somebody can run down the escalator in the MRT faster than you can. You’re jealous of something. How about arrogance and pride? Do those occur almost every day? “I’m kind of better than the people in my workplace. I know I’m better, but these people don’t realize that I’m better and that if they didn’t have me working here, the whole place would fall apart. So, they should be very glad that I’m working here and I’m on their team. Because I’m superior.”
Dealing with arrogance
Okay, I’ll tell you a secret about people who are arrogant. It’s only a secret to the arrogant people; everyone else knows. Why do people get arrogant? We’re going to talk about the antidotes to arrogance first. Why do you get arrogant and stick your nose up in the air and think you’re better than everyone else? Why do we do that? It’s because we don’t really believe in ourselves. If we believe in ourselves and feel comfortable in our own skin, we don’t need to go around telling people how great we are. Because other people thinking we’re wonderful doesn’t mean we’re wonderful. Similarly, people thinking we’re bad doesn’t mean we’re bad. We have to look inside and see if we make mistakes or if we have a fault.
When we don’t really have confidence in ourselves then we fake it and project ourselves as being very wonderful. When you look at movie stars, those people need other people’s adoration. It’s like food for them. They can’t go without a crowd saying, “You’re wonderful,” and being written up in the newspapers and having so many pictures flashed of them. That makes them feel good. It makes them feel like they are somebody. Why do they need to go to that extreme to feel good? It’s because they don’t really believe in themselves. The same applies when we’re being arrogant. We’re not accepting ourselves in some way.
It’s important to recognize that we’re not perfect beings, and that’s okay. It’s important to understand also that we have the buddhanature and the ability to become fully awakened beings. So, if we’re not the best athletes and artists and programmers and dentists or whatever we are, it’s okay. You have the buddhanature. And you don’t have to go around impressing others to feel good about yourself. There’s a lot of self-acceptance there.
I remember when His Holiness the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was in Southern California on a panel with all sorts of other people who were experts in their fields. Somebody asked His Holiness a question, and he paused and said, in front of an audience of thousands of people, “I don’t know.” The auditorium was silent. “The expert said, ‘I don’t know.’ How can an expert say, ‘I don’t know’? That’s so humiliating! He must really feel awful because he doesn’t know the answer, and he had to say it in front of thousands of people!”
And the Dalai Lama was fine. He said, “I don’t know,” and had no problem in his mind. Then he turned to the other people on the panel and asked, “What do you think?” Again, the audience was shocked. “Wait a minute, the expert not only doesn’t know the answer, but he asked other people because he thinks they might know more than him? What expert ever reveals that they don’t know anything and that others might know more?” His Holiness could do this because he doesn’t have any ego problems. He doesn’t need to prove himself to the world and declare how wonderful he is so that other people think he’s good. He feels comfortable with himself.
One of the antidotes to arrogance is to learn to evaluate ourselves and to accept ourselves for what we are, knowing that we have good qualities and then using those good qualities to help others and to benefit society. And we know we have bad qualities, so let’s work on improving, but we can do all of this without feeling bad about ourselves and without covering it up by putting on this fake image of how great we are. Does that make sense?
When we’re arrogant we think it’s because somehow inside us we are superior: “There are all these other beings and then I—I—am superior!” So then another antidote is to stop and think, “Well, where do my talents come from? When I was born, when I came out of the womb very small, did I have any of those talents, any of those good qualities?” No, when I was born, I cried. That’s the first thing you do when you’re born and they whack you on the bottom, for your own good, and say, “Welcome to the world.”
Where did we get these qualities? Where did we learn to talk? Talking, understanding language, is an incredible ability we have that gives us so much access to knowledge. Where did our ability to speak come from? We weren’t born with it. Our only vocabulary word when we came out of the womb was “Ahhhhh,” so how did we learn to speak? Other people taught us. How did we learn to read and write? Other people taught us. What about toilet training? We should bow down to whomever toilet trained us because if we weren’t toilet trained, we would really have problems. Who toilet trained us? Other living beings. Everything we know, every ability and talent we have, every teeny bit of knowledge we have, came from other living beings who taught us.
So, what is there for us to be conceited and arrogant about if everything we know came from other living beings? It’s not ours. It’s others. And they were kind enough to teach us, but that’s no reason for us to think that we’re great.
On the New York Times’ front cover today, there was some baseball player from Asia who just got a seven million dollar contract to play baseball. That’s not peanuts—either that or it’s a whole lot of peanuts. [laughter] But who taught him to be such a good baseball player, to whack or to catch that ball? Who taught him? He wasn’t born like that. Other living beings taught him, probably starting when he was a little kid throwing the ball back and forth with his dad or his older brother. And now he has coaches that teach him, and he got a seven million dollar contract. We think, “He must be just magnificent.” Well, he’s still open to aging, sickness and death. He still meets situations that he doesn’t like. He still experiences the loss of what he wants and the frustration of not getting what he likes. Because maybe somebody else got a seven hundred and ten billion contract, so he’s jealous. Somebody is going to make ten more millions than he is. “How dare somebody get a bigger contract!” The guy is miserable.
Also, if you’re famous due to an ability like that, is that ability going to increase as you age? No. You might be the best in the world right now, but you’re going downhill. So, if the amount of money you make is your standard for being happy, if the amount of publicity and fame you have is your standard for being happy, then what is going to happen when you get older and lose those abilities? That’s going to be trouble. So, why get arrogant? There’s no reason to get arrogant.
If you meditate like this it should not bring low self-esteem; it should bring self acceptance and dissolve your arrogance. It should also make you see that running after worldly money, fame and status isn’t really worth it in the long-term because all those things disappear.
What is worth it in the long term is the merit you create, the Dharma teachings you listen to, and the imprints that are in your mindstream due to hearing those teachings and meditating on them. That is what is worthwhile. That is what will be a comfort to you when you reach the end of this life and look back on your life. Then you’ll be able to say, “I’ve used this life well. I’ve practiced loving-kindness. I’ve practiced compassion. I’ve created merit. I’ve purified my mind. I’ve listened to Dharma teachings. I’ve thought about them and put them into practice in my daily life. That was a life well lived.” And then you can die with no regrets, no fear: “Bye, everybody!”
One of my teachers said that when you have that kind of mind when you die, then your mind is really free. And he gave the analogy of a boat in the middle of the wide ocean with no land around. And you’re a little bird on the edge of the boat. And when you’re that bird, you just take off and fly. You just take off and fly. You’re not thinking, “Oh, I don’t want to leave this boat! My friends are still on it; I don’t want to leave! I have such a nice nest on this boat. I worked so hard gathering the hay and sticks to build it! And now I have to leave my nest!” No, that bird isn’t looking back as they are flying ahead and saying, “I want to go back.” They just fly. They just let go. Because they have that kind of confidence and fearlessness because of a life well lived, a life that was lived with ethical conduct, compassion and kindness towards others.
Antidotes to anger
Let’s see what other afflictions we can apply antidotes to. There are many pages in this chapter. And you know who wrote the book? [laughter] You see the name there? What’s that name? [laughter] Aren’t I wonderful? I wrote this book! Thank you, please give me more applause. Whee!! [laughter] The problem is that whatever I wrote was somebody else’s idea. I just copied somebody else’s idea, and I’m going to get all the credit for it. [laughter] I copied the Buddha’s idea, and he’s not suing me for infringement of his intellectual property. Hey, I got a good deal. I get royalties. They give me about five pennies per book. You do not get rich as an author unless you write something about Trump’s Whitehouse. [laughter] Then a lot of people want to read your book.
Let’s go directly to anger. The first remedy to anger is to think about its disadvantages. When we’re angry, we don’t see any disadvantages to our anger. We think, “I’m right. They’re wrong. The solution is they must change! And there’s no disadvantage to my anger because it’s giving me the courage to stand up. Because somebody just called me a jerk, and that’s the worst thing that can happen in this universe, that somebody doesn’t like me and calls me a jerk in front of everybody else. So, I’m angry! I’m furious! And I’m going to put that person in their place. They are never going to call me a jerk again!”
What’s the definition of a jerk? I’ve never looked it up. [laughter] Have you ever looked up the word “jerk”? What does that mean? We don’t even know what somebody is calling us, but we’re very offended by it because we know that it means we aren’t very good. We don’t really know what it means, but “Nobody is allowed to say that about me.”
The first thing in working with any affliction is to see its disadvantages. What’s the disadvantage to being angry? First of all, one moment of anger can destroy a lot of merit. When we create merit, we work very hard at that, and when we get angry, it destroys the merit and inhibits it from ripening. So, anger is our enemy. It robs us of merit we’ve created which is the cause of happiness. Now, do you like being around angry people? No. If somebody in your family is angry, what do people do? Probably some people may stand up and argue back so then you have two angry people. [laughter] And some people go in their rooms and close the door to be away from it all. Being around somebody who is angry is not very entertaining. It’s not very agreeable. Who wants to see somebody who is yelling and screaming and having a fit? But that’s what we look like when we get angry.
Somebody might say, “No, I don’t yell and scream when I’m angry. I just turn my back and walk away, go in my room and SLAM the door. I sit there and pout and wait for the person who made me angry to tiptoe in the room and say, ‘Dear, are you angry?’” Then I’ll say, “No.” [laughter] They might even say, “I apologize for what I said; will you forgive me?” But I’ll say, “Forget it!” We’re so wonderful when we’re angry, aren’t we? Even if somebody apologizes, we just dump on them some more. That’s not very nice, is it?
Here are more disadvantages of anger: it ruins friendships, generates tension with colleagues and is the main cause for wars and conflicts. Look at the wars being fought around this planet today. What’s feeding all those wars? What is feeding all those people killing others and people getting killed in wars?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yeah, it’s anger. And behind the anger is attachment. They want something, and they are mad they aren’t getting it. Russia wants Ukrainian land. Putin wants to be famous for “revitalizing” the ancient Russian Empire by occupying countries that centuries ago were under Russian control. So, he’s greedy, and there’s attachment in his mind. But what do you have to do to train soldiers to go and kill and try to get Ukrainian land back? You train the soldiers to hate the enemy. And when you train soldiers, you look at the people you are fighting, and you call them every name in the book. You denigrate them. You say they are animals. Because it makes it easier for soldiers to kill another human being if they think that person is an animal. Do wars ever bring any happiness? No. What is going to be the result of the war between Russia and the Ukraine? Is anyone going to be happy after? For Ukraine, whether they win or lose, their houses and villages are rubble. The Russians are dropping bombs like mad. The population is depleted. This is what anger leads to.
We might say, “Well, I’m not going to start a war.” Well, okay. We might not start an international war. But we might start a war in our own family or in our workplace. There’s somebody we don’t like at work and we’re angry, so what do we do? We get all of our friends at work, and we together criticize and trash that person. “They’re so bad. They do this; they do that.” We totally ruin their reputation, and then we feel, “I’m so good. I must be better than them.”
Also, when somebody is angry and I hear them criticize and badmouth somebody else, I don’t trust that person afterwards. Because I know that if they badmouth somebody else to other people, they will do the same thing to me. That person gets angry and then talks behind other peoples’ backs. And it will only be a matter of time before they do that to me, so I don’t trust them. If we have a hot temper, that’s how people look at us. They don’t trust us. In a family, if you don’t trust somebody, that’s going to be real difficult, isn’t it? How are you going to have a happy family? There are so many disadvantages to anger.
One of the antidotes to anger is not being so attached to things. Another antidote to anger is seeing how your own anger harms you. We think our anger will harm somebody else so that they will do what we want, but our anger harms us. It makes us miserable now, and it destroys our merit. And when we die and want a good rebirth, where’s the merit to support that? Thoughts like that are good antidotes to anger.
Antidotes to attachment
The Buddha taught so many antidotes. For attachment, one of the chief antidotes is to contemplate the impermanence of what you’re attached to. Because what you’re attached to looks great now, but it’s in the process of decaying and getting old. So, why cling and grasp at it now thinking it’s the source of your happiness when it’s only going to deteriorate and you’ll have to throw it out at some point? That’s a very good antidote. There was one Dharma practitioner named Ayya Khema, and she was talking about impermanence and said when I look at my precious cup I think that it is already broken. It has the nature to be broken, so even though it hasn’t broken yet, it will break eventually. So, why am I clinging on to this cup? “It’s my beautiful cup, nicer than anyone else’s cup, my Great Aunt gave me this cup, so it has so much sentimental value.” No, it’s already broken.
In the States, when someone is moving or when they have extra objects, they’ll put them in front of the house and put a message in the paper that there’s a garage sale and then people come and buy somebody else’s things they don’t need anymore. One of my friends was having a garage sale, and he had put out decorations from his house for other people to buy—wall hangings and things you put on shelves. He was putting out so many things that had sentimental value to him, and it was so hard to think of selling these things because somebody really dear to him had given them to him and things like that. He put very high prices on those things because from his viewpoint, those things were of great value. It was things like this plate he got in Mexico on this trip he had with his family, and it was so beautiful and had so much sentimental value. So, he put a high price on it because it was a really expensive plate, very worthwhile. But nobody wanted to buy it for that price. He realized that he had charged that much because it had sentimental value to him, but to the rest of the world, there was no sentimental value. It was just a plate with colors on it. This is what attachment does. We impute value on something that actually doesn’t have so much value.
We didn’t get through all of the antidotes to the afflictions. I recommend this book, Guided Buddhist Meditations—you know who authored it! [laughter] And this copy is the only one left, so now we’re going to auction it off. [laughter] We’re fundraising to build the Buddha Hall, so the highest bidder can have this. [laughter] We’ll put it out on the table. [laughter]
Dedicating and Rejoicing
Let’s dedicate the merit now. But let’s also rejoice at the merit we created and really rejoice! You can’t see merit with your eyes, but you can feel merit in your heart. When you keep your five precepts well, when you practice generosity, when you practice learning the Dharma and living it in your daily life, you can feel the merit underneath buoying you up. You can’t see any of it, but it’s a feeling of being supported by your merit. Nobody else can see that, and nobody else can take that away from you either. That’s what you want to take with you to your next life.
So, when you create merit, really rejoice. You did something good so give yourself some credit! And let’s dedicate that merit for the awakening of all living beings. We’re not dedicating it so that I can be rich and famous, so that I can be wealthy in my next life, so that I can have spiritual realizations, we’re dedicating it for all living beings—for their awakening and for our awakening.
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.