By Rev. Kinrei Bassis
There is an emphasis in Buddhist teaching on how we should let things go, how we should be still, be patient, and be content. Yet everyone has great difficulty in following these simple teachings. Real wisdom in Buddhism starts with us gaining an understanding of what is happening when something in our life is generating a strong feeling that is making us move and react. What is causing us to be filled with desire, and what is happening when we are experiencing fear and repulsion? What is our reaction and response when we confront difficulties? What is happening when we experience strong aversion and are finding that what we are facing in our life seems unacceptable? What is really needed from us in order to find real peace and acceptance in the midst of life’s many difficulties? The normal worldly attitude generally does not try to deeply examine all our feelings and reactions, finding it normal and human that we have this strong desire for the so-called “good things” in life and have a strong aversion to all so-called “bad stuff”. Wisdom in Buddhism comes out of seeing through these habitual patterns of thoughts and reactions so that we can have insight into what is really going on in our daily experience of life. This means all our reactions in daily life are giving us teaching on what we need to let go of in order to free ourselves. Without this reflection, we become just victims of our karmic conditions, allowing ourselves to be blown about in life by whatever good or bad conditions we are experiencing.
Throughout much of our daily life, we are often just following our habitual tendencies, giving knee-jerk reactions to what we encounter. This person is rude and I am bothered and react with annoyance. Something goes wrong, and I am frustrated. Someone is angry with me, and I respond back with irritation and anger. I get some unexpected praise, and I feel wonderful. A central aspect of Buddhist practice is cultivating a reflective awareness so we can gain insight into the consequences of our thoughts, our words, and our actions. What are we generating for our future when we are upset with someone, when we are angry, when we are greedy, when we speak harshly? When we cling to something we like and want, we need to see how we are creating future suffering when the inevitable change happens, and we lose that source of pleasure. Also, we are becoming aware of the positive future we can be generating when we have compassionate thoughts rather than angry thoughts, when we speak kindly rather than harshly, when we are generous rather than mean-spirited, when we let go of the hurt feeling rather than obsessing about how we were hurt.
We are not using this reflective awareness to judge but rather to witness what we are doing and to see and understand the results of our thoughts, words and actions. Wisdom in Buddhism means we are gaining insight into what and why we think and behave in certain ways, and then see what are the results. The Buddhist Precepts are the anchor of our reflections because doing evil results in more suffering and doing good results in more happiness. If an evil act cause more happiness in the world, then it is not really an evil act. The ground of Buddhist reflection is our effort to try to see what actions will bring forth the most good in our present situation, in our life, and in the world.
Getting the outside world the way we wish it to be is obviously impossible. Getting the conditions in our life the way we wish them to be is sometimes achievable for a time, but then change will still inevitably flow through our life, and we will again be given conditions that we would never want. Reflection will help us to start to understand why we are suffering, and why our reactions are so strong. When we gain a better understanding of why we love and hate, why we have this desire and that fear, we can begin to see through this fog of all our desires and understand what we are holding and how we can let something go.
This reflective awareness has us looking to see how the root of all our problems are found within our own hearts. The root of our suffering is not found in the difficult conditions in our life but in our mistaken response to these difficulties. “If we don’t see the harmful consequences of all our wrong views, then we can’t leave them, the practice is difficult. …… If we have right view wherever we go, we are content. ” ~ Ajahn Chah
Having Right View of our suffering points us to how we find liberation, not by trying to create a perfect world or a perfect self but by accepting whatever we are being given in life and realizing none of these difficulties really bind us unless we cling to them. Being stuck in traffic does not cause any suffering if we are content with being in a car that is not moving. Someone’s opinion of us does not matter unless we choose to give their opinion of us, importance. Instead of taking praise and blame to heart, we try to take the Dharma to heart and recognize the insubstantial nature of the floating opinions of praise and blame.
I can make a mess of something and other people are upset with me, and I feel depressed. With reflection, I can patiently witness these thoughts and feelings. I will be aware of what I am telling myself and see if it is in harmony with the Dharma. I can try to picture myself bringing this problem to the Buddha and think of what would be given to me as teaching. If a friend of mine made the same mistake I did, what advice would I give them? I know that my own habitual self-critical thoughts are much harsher than I would generally ever offer to anyone else.
One aspect of developing this reflective awareness is to gain a better understanding of how we have created our personal identity. What makes up our sense of self? How are we making this me, this self, out of all of our life experiences? This sense of self is a fragile construct, so easily hurt by others. Hurt by a harsh word, by a critical look, by someone else getting what we desire. However, with reflection, we can learn to get a better sense of how we have generated this fragile sense of self and we can learn to loosen the way we identify with it. We can witness hurt feelings and remind ourselves they are just passing feelings and nothing is fundamentally being damaged. Something good or bad happens to us and we do not need to make it personal. We can look at the unfolding of our life and not make it into this seemingly important story of me but rather see it all as arising and passing impersonal conditions. A good Buddhist saying is “taking nothing personally”.
I can feel hurt by someone’s criticism of me. I can then spend much time trying to solve it, and boost my ego so I do not feel hurt. I can spend time being critical of others because they criticized me. Or, with reflection, I can try to be still with this feeling of hurt and try to understand what is happening, and what I am telling myself when I feel hurt. It is an important question, what is being hurt when I am criticized? Do I really want to give other people the power to determine how I view myself?
With reflection, everything in our life can be a Dharma lesson. This person’s opinions annoy me; I hate the way this person behaves; I love it when I receive this compliment; I dread this type of criticism. With reflection, we can examine how our feelings and emotions are giving us teaching on what we are actually clinging to and what we are pushing away. Buddhist training will never stop all our desires and fears, all the things that attract us and repel us, from arising. What Buddhist training should do is lessen the amount and intensity of our desires and aversions but there will always be some desires and aversions arising. Feeling desire, feeling fear and aversion are normal and necessary aspects of how we interact with the world and with our karma. Someone physically threatening me should invoke some fear, and if I am hungry, I should have some desire for food. The freedom in Buddhism comes from realizing the insubstantial and ephemeral nature of all desires and fears so we do not feel bound by them.
The following line from the Scripture of Great Wisdom:
“In the mind of the Bosatsu who is truly one with Wisdom Great, the obstacles dissolve…”
With our reflective awareness of our life, we can gain the wisdom that allows us to see the fundamental unreality of all our fears and desires. Nothing stands between us and the Buddha Heart except our clinging to what we want and what we fear. With reflection, we can gain knowledge of each way we are making ourselves suffer and learn what we need to do so that we can free ourselves from the knots of karma that we have entangled ourselves. Each time we learn how to let go of something we have been grasping, we are taking another step forward on the path to Buddhahood.