Using Our Fortunate Circumstances

Is having a fortunate birth and hearing the Buddhadharma enough to create enlightenment?

Most of us (who are reading this) have access to the "affordances" of modern life, like the Internet, education, health care, beautiful shelter, abundant food, and access to other resources.  I believe these things are what traditional Buddhism would call achieving a higher human birth.  Yet these things are merely external factors that may create an opportunity for spiritual development, if other conditions are present (and utilized).  I believe that some people can simply hear the Buddhadharma, and get it immediately.  Most likely, an individual who "immediately" got it; did so after years of study, meditation, and practice on the path.  

Since we have a very large pool of individuals who have at least some of the external conditions (of a fortunate birth) and other conditions such as the promulgation of the Dharma through magazines, the Internet, workshops, teachers, Sanghas, etc.; shouldn't we expect to see lots of enlightened individuals walking among us on the path of the Bohicitta?

Here is my point:  since the world has so many favorable conditions, what do we need to do to make proper use of these to bring about release of suffering for more people.  And I hesitate to ask this negative sounding question, but I will - why have these very favorable circumstances not produced a pronounced beneficial outcome?   

I believe (another thing I take on faith, not hard evidence) that it may be we are on the brink of an age of enlightenment.  I see this possibility in many young people, especially the so called "Millennial" generation.  But realistically, we are also on the brink of disaster from our ecological hubris and "anti-spiritual" practices.

We have all the conditions needed for a truly enlightened age.  What do we need to do to take proper advantage of these?  Maybe there is something we can each do to create a world in which the Buddhadharma awakens more of those who are in such a favorable position. 

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The Allegory of a Higher Rebirth

I came to an another moment of appreciation for the fortunate circumstances of my birth and life while reading The Middle Way: Faith grounded in reason (2009) by The Dali Lama.  The particular quote is rather long and occurs on page 26.

Now, the goals in Buddhism are the immediate aim of attaining higher rebirth as a human being or as a god and the ultimate aim of achieving definite goodness.  The teachings on the means of attaining higher rebirth are based on cultivating "the right worldly view."  What is the right worldly view?  It is the right view of the law of karma and its effects based on conviction in the principle of dependent origination.  The goal sought and attained on the basis of such a view is higher rebirth.

I guess it was also hearing the story of a friend who just returned from a tourist trip to Rome, in which she described the problem of seeing so many beggars.  (We see just as many in all the big cities.  Washington, DC is such a disappointment in this regard, but this is another topic.)  In the moments following my reading the passage and hearing of the pitiful situation of those "beggars", I realized (again) that I was given a very high birth (whether it is a higher rebirth, I can not say.)

I assume those of you who are reading this also are the beneficiaries of a very fortunate birth.  Mine is so fortunate, I must admit that I live like a god.  In this moment, I can not think of anything I need that I do not already have in full abundance.

Please consider doing this exercise:  In this moment, what do you need that you do not already have.  (Not in some future time or in some past temporary situation, but right now!)  Even if I try by projecting into the past or future, I still must confess; I have always and expect to continue living like a god.

I cannot explain why I have been so blessed.  (Some may speculate on the operation of karma, rebirth, etc., but I judge that is not relevant or necessary.)  But for all of us living in this opportune time and having heard the Buddharma, we are poised on the verge of enlightenment.  What better circumstances could be made available?

If you are reading this, I suspect you have been blessed already with everything you need to achieve definite goodness.  I hope you (and I) will remember this in each moment and especially at the time of our last breath.

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Lojong 47) Use resentments as a reminder, not an obstacle.

7. Guidelines (37-57)

47) Use resentments as a reminder, not an obstacle.

(Meditate on that which provokes resentment.)

In a previous version of this Lojong saying, I had these two statements reversed. I liked the shock and paradox of the second statement, but without some additional explanation, I think it could be misunderstood (and if so, possibly cause harm), especially as a Twitter message. The first statement captures the essence of the saying, but does not give much hint as to how this can be done.

Resentments are typically based on judgments

(Skip this unless you like pedantic over analysis). Internal psychological events can take several forms; two that are frequently recognized are thoughts and feelings. Thoughts can be categorized lots of different ways. We all deal with several different sorts each day. I believe some of my thoughts are an attempt on my part to merely describe an accurate representation of my past, current, or possible future context. If these thoughts are an approximation to an accurate representation, they probably consist of simple and straight descriptions of environmental factors and contingencies. To the extent that these thoughts get complicated, they are probably slipping into inaccurate cognitive fusions and other distortions. Resentments are a distortion that I usually class as a judgment. Judgments are distorted thoughts in which I typically over-generalize to create an interrelated set of characterizations about another person, organization, or similar system, so that I make statements about or treat the other based on these characterizations rather than on an accurate representation.

I have some judgments that serve an adaptive strategy. In fact, we all form judgments because it is a quick way to inform decisions that need to be made in a hurry. These we often call “snap judgments”. Judgments are not necessarily a bad thing. If you are successful at developing accurate representations of your environment(s), you will form better judgments.

The key to dealing with judgments is to become aware of them when they are occurring, perhaps using the technique described in Lojong #42. As I am able to become aware of the arising of these thoughts, I can recognize them for what they are. When I can recognize that a thought is a judgment then I can “own” it. By “own it”, I mean that I recognize it is not a simple representation of reality; it is a judgment.. Then I can meditate on it to understand where it comes from, why I developed this judgment, and perhaps rationally decide what I should do about it.

I prefer my meditation practice when I simply settle into pure awareness, but it is possible to meditate on thoughts and feelings. I can become mindful of these to recognize when they arise and choose to contemplate them or let them fall away. If I contemplate a thought, (judgment) or feeling, I maintain the detached position characterized by “stepping back” “to look at” it. Perhaps I will use techniques from Focusing by Eugene Gendlin, PhD. As I contemplate, I may ask, “Have I experienced this before?” “What was that situation?” “Can I describe this feeling with a word or words?” , etc.

When I become aware I am holding a resentment (or a negative judgment), this is a great opportunity to discover areas of my own distorted thinking. If you are “thinking” that most of your judgments are valid, and you have had experiences that justify your resentments; you have a wonderful opportunity for personal growth. I hope you will have success in meditations on these that allow you to release them, so you will have more opportunity to settle in pure awareness and in mindfulness in daily life.

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Lojong 45) Keep the 3 Inseparable.

7. Guidelines (37-57)

45) Keep the 3 Inseparable.

(Integrate Practice in Mind, Speech, & Body.)

At the simplest level this Lojong is about being thorough in practice.  The best results occur when you are consistent in what you think, what you say, and what you do.  This surface level of recommendation is common sense, and few would object to it.

A deeper analysis requires us to look at what constitutes the Mind and the origin of thoughts. Like many others, I hold the belief that “I am not my thoughts”.  This position is described in several philosophies, including most of the Buddhist Dharmas.  One of the most succinct formulations of this concept can be found in Eckhart Tolle’s, The Power of Now (2004).

A well-developed meditation practice helps me see that thoughts arise, but can be released, to return to a state of “pure being” or “pure consciousness”.  These are terms I first encountered in Transcendental Meditation, and they aptly describe the state in which the “incessant internal jabbering” stops.  (I attribute this term to Fritz Perls from Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (1977).  Some have called a state of racing and confusing thought, “Monkey Mind”.)

This understanding of the nature of thought is also developed in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is based on Relational Frame Theory (RFT).  This well researched area of Behavior Analysis, argues that our capacity for language is based on the human ability to place abstract things into conceptual categories, and then to respond based on the relationship between the categories rather than simply respond to the concrete properties of a stimulus.  Animals other than humans only have the capacity to respond to concrete properties, and most often this means biological mechanisms or the previous reinforcement history.  Humans are able to respond to “abstract properties and relationships among these” which for simplicity sake, we call language.

Our thoughts are language; and unfortunately, many thoughts connect abstract stimulus classes that do not warrant the connections we attribute to them.  For example, one of these erroneous connections is “I am my thoughts”.  When I think something, I tend to give it special credence, merit, or believability.  Other examples, "I am anxious", "Why else would he say that ....", "This always happens",  "I have PTSD",  etc.

The key to Right Thought is to have a clear understanding of the true nature of reality.  The Lojong sayings, the Suttras, books on the Dharma, scientific psychology, and all the other Teachings are helpful in developing Right Thought.  Don’t be discouraged if developing Right Thought takes a long time of meditation and study. 

I have heard a version of the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment in which he related his insight to the group of seekers he had previously studied with.  In this version of the story, some heard the Four Noble Truths, but did not understand; and some who heard where immediately enlightened.  I think this is possible, for those who have devoted time to proper study, experience, and contemplation (which could include, Books, Workshops, Retreats, Meditation, 12 Step Meetings, Seminary, University, Back Wards, Community Service, etc. Of course, some experiences are more conducive to Right Understanding than others.)

Begin with Right Thought, which is very complicated.  It is not merely thinking righteous thoughts, but involves being able to see reality clearly.

The next step is to make your speech consistent with Right Thought.  Right Speech is not merely being polite or not saying “bad words”.  It supports both Right Thought and Right Action in a continuous feedback system.  We are better able to sustain Right Thought to the extent we do not fall into thinking patterns prompted by speech that sets the occasion for distortions like Cognitive Fusion.

This is not to say common language shortcuts of speech are the problem.  (In fact, I am using these throughout this essay.)  My point is that we should be careful when using these shortcuts because these can confuse our understanding of reality.  It is merely easier to say, “I am anxious” than to say, “I am experiencing these particular physiological sensations …, in this particular context …, and I am thinking these particular unsettling thoughts….”  I would argue, however, that understanding the reality of the latter statement assists me in not becoming confused about who I am.  While the use of the former statement, sets the occasion for my confusion and prompts distorted thinking.

When I understand who I am and the reality of my experiences, I have more options to engage in behaviors that are consistent with my Values.  For example, I may experience anxious sensations and thoughts, yet still choose to engage in a Valued behavior. (Lojong #41 Observe 2 precepts even at the risk of life.) What are your highest Values?  I hope one of them is Compassion.

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Lojong 43) Take on the 3 Primary Resources & 44) Don't Allow 3 Things to Weaken

7. Guidelines (37 - 57)

43) Take on the 3 primary resources.

44) Don't allow 3 things to weaken.

These two Lojong sayings have very similar points. I have heard these called the Three Jewels or the three Objects of Refuge. And I have also heard them “translated as: the Buddha, the Sangha, and the Dhamma/Dharma. More simply, the three can be described as Teacher, Environment, Teachings.

Here is a link to a site called Sarlo’s Guru Rating Service (Click on the link to go there)

Many of the accomplished teachers have ended up with reputations that they exploited their “students”. Trungpa Rinpoche married a 16 year old that he hardly knew (see her autobiographical article in the Shambhala Sun (click on the link to go there). Yet he is also revered as a master teacher by almost all of the students who had the great fortune to study with him, such as Pema Chodron.

I have found the writings of Osho to be highly enlightened, but his reputation of taking sexual liberties with female students is well known. What is the point of this discussion? It is never appropriate for a Teacher to take advantage of a student, but the Teacher may not be perfect and still he or she can have great wisdom to impart. Fortunately, some teachers seem to have both the wisdom of a great Teacher and personal qualities that instill trust, such as Pema Chodron. It is highly unlikely that any of us will be able to develop a complete understanding of reality without study with Teachers, as well as study of the Teachings.

If you have the good fortune to be reading this, you probably live a very blessed life. You have access to a computer and the Internet. You have an education and have the time to devote to self-improvement. This is a wonderful environment for self-development. This saying suggests you should make sure you appreciate your environment, if it is conducive to following the Dharma. And you should probably make an effort to remove yourself from environments that are not conducive. I often wonder how people live in Iraq, the West Bank, and other “war zones”. I do not believe you need to live in a monastery or be on permanent retreat to develop. There is something to be said for developing in the real world. When I develop a skill in a retreat, there is always the question of will I be able to transfer this to my real life. It is like the patient who claims he has beaten his addiction at the end of his 28-day program before re-entering his life. Developing in the real world is harder at the beginning, but more likely to produce lasting results. But even our real world must be able to support our practice. If you find yourself in an environment that does not support your practice, meditate on why you have not changed it.

We are so fortunate to have available so many wonderful sources of teaching. There are Buddhist Journals like Tricycle, BuddhaDharma, Shambhala Sun, and many others. And there are also many blog and Internet sites that can help us develop. Even with all of these resources, remember to evaluate the teaching based on whether it makes sense.

If none of these teachings make sense to you yet, consider finding a Teacher.

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